This is the eighth 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 California. Our previous chats can be found here: Boise State, Illinois, Idaho State, Arizona, Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State.
Alex: Tough weekend for the Husky nation. Not only did the Husky family lose its greatest coach who set the standard of greatness and success at the University of Washington, but the current Husky football team played their worst game of the season.
Outside of the first few series of the game, the Huskies did not look prepared to play—especially on the offensive side of the ball. Steve Sarkisian seemed confused about how to attack the Sun Devil defense. He seemed to be overthinking the play calls, which seems crazy considering that the Huskies possessed the nation's leading rusher against a team that struggled to stop the run. And by the time Sarkisian realized that he had the nation's leading rusher, the Huskies were too far down in the game to feature the Bishop.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox took full responsibility for the poor performance on defense. While I appreciate his willingness to take the blame, I don't believe that this is completely on him. Due to the offense's struggles, the Husky defense spent the nearly the whole game on the field. The defense did a horrible job tackling and corralling Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly, but if any defense is on the field long enough—they're going to get tired and make mistakes.
Steve Sarkisian needs to rally his team the rest of the season, if they are going to avoid yet another 7-6 season and a sizzling seat to start next season. What do you think the Huskies need to do in order to avoid another mediocre season in the middle of the Pac?
Ryan: Before I answer your question, I'd like to take a moment to second what you wrote about the impact that the death of Don James has had on the community. I don't think that it would be a stretch to say that neither you, I nor our readers would be perusing this blog if it weren't for the influence of the Dawgfather. Though he retired long before I was old enough to fully grasp the import of his accomplishments, it's been sobering to take in all of the tributes that have come his way since his death on Sunday. If my life has half the effect on people that James' clearly did, I'll count myself a lucky man indeed.
As to your question of ‘What do the Huskies need to do to avoid another mediocre season?'—truth be told, I'm not sure that there is anything that Washington can do to avoid another mediocre season. To be included in the upper-tier of the Pac-12, UW had to 1) beat either or both of the conference's standard holders in the form of Stanford or Oregon, and 2) avoid getting blown out at any point this year. After winning on the road against Illinois and playing Stanford tough in a nail-biter on The Farm, I thought that this would be the year that Washington would finally kick its maddening tendency to play disastrously away from home. If Steve Sarkisian ends up being fired at some point, I think we'll all point to Saturday's game, and to a lesser extent the Arizona game in 2012, as key turning points in that decision.
Let's be clear: In 2012, Washington's struggles were a product of a freakish number of injuries to starters, most notably on the offensive line. This year, the line has stayed completely healthy, other than starting left guard Dexter Charles' shoulder injury that kept him from seeing action on Saturday. A fifth-year senior quarterback leads the offense, and he's accompanied by a pre-season All American at tight end and one of the most reliable workhorse running backs in the nation. For God's sake, Washington's mantra this season is "Anywhere. Anytime. Anyone."! And yet, for the fifth consecutive season, Sark's squad has imploded at least once. If Washington finishes this season 3-2, as oddsmakers will likely expect them to, with road losses to UCLA and Oregon State, the Huskies will have finished the regular season at 7-5 for the third consecutive year, and any discussion of college coaches on the hot seat will begin with Steve Sarkisian's name.
Last week, I said that the keys to Washington winning would be the ability of the offensive line to play technically sound football, and for the coaching staff to properly motivate the team. Clearly, the Huskies accomplished neither of those goals, and I'm convinced that Saturday's embarrassment is rooted equally in both of those failures. (Lest you think that I'm some modern-day Nostradamus, by the way, I'll point out that I also tabbed the Dawgs to win by 20. So don't ask me to pick your Lotto numbers just yet.) This week, they'll get a chance to bounce back at home against an ailing California squad that has nonetheless shown an ability to put plenty of points on the board.
We'll no doubt find out more as the week goes on (I'm writing this on Monday), but as of now, it appears that Keith Price's thumb may be sufficiently injured that he'll need to sit this week's game to heal properly. If that comes to pass, how do you think starting Cyler Miles at quarterback will change the look of this team?
Alex: Steve Sarkisian said at his weekly press conference that having Miles in the game will not change the look of the offense. While I expect to see the offense rely more heavily on the running game with the Bishop, I think Sarkisian would be crazy not to play to Miles' strengths.
The Husky offense should not be conservative just because they have a backup playing this game. Miles would be the starter at many other programs across the country; if he plays, they should treat him as such during this game.
Whereas Keith Price has enough mobility to extend plays and pick up a few first downs, he is not a feature of the running game as some former Husky quarterbacks have been—most recently in the forms of Jake Locker and Marques Tuiasosopo. Cyler Miles, on the other hand, can and should be employed in much the same way that Locker and Tuiasosopo were used during their time at UW.
To build Miles' confidence and create easier opportunities in the passing game, Sarkisian should feature him early and often using the zone-read play. If the Bishop and Miles start racking up yards on the ground early in the game, the passing game will open up. Besides the usual receiver screen game, the Huskies should try to attack the Bear secondary with vertical routes. There is no reason that the Huskies should have anything less than an outstanding offensive performance, if Sarkisian plays to Miles' strengths.
Ryan: I couldn't agree more. For all his faults as a play-caller that were thrown into sharp relief last week, Sarkisian remains one of college football's elite developers of quarterbacks. He's recruited the position ridiculously well, to the point that UW will likely pass on taking a quarterback at all in its 2014 recruiting class, and he knows what kind of athleticism Cyler Miles brings to the table.
Alright, I'm going to shut my trap now, because my first entry went for 609 words and I have little doubt that our readers are dangerously tempted to close their browser tabs unless I give it a rest. Prediction time!
Alex: For the Huskies to have any semblance of a successful season, they must win their next two games against California and Colorado. (Earning some style points along the way wouldn't hurt, either.) A few blowouts of lesser opponents would help bring back at least some confidence and momentum of a team that started 4-0.
I predict that Price will play in this game. Whether Keith Price starts this game or not, I expect the offense to feature a lot of Bishop Sankey. The Huskies need to stick with the running game to open up the other parts of their offense. If they stick with the run, the passing game will flourish, whether it's Price or Miles throwing the ball.
The defense will face a formidable passing attack; however, neither the Cal starter nor his backup should present as much of a challenge in the running game. If the Husky defense can create some turnovers and punts early in the game, they will be able to impose their will on offense and control the game.
With a strong showing in the running game, timely play-action calls in the passing game, and a commitment to creating turnovers, I expect a Husky win by a wide margin. I'll call it Washington Huskies 45, Cal Bears 20.
Ryan: No one could have predicted the five-alarm fire of a meltdown that the Huskies experienced last week in Tempe—not Vegas, which favored ASU by three, and certainly not me, who favored the Dawgs by 20. (Gulp.) A smart man would hedge his bets and play it safe; fortunately for you, I am not that man.
(Wait a minute ... that didn't come out right.)
If there's anything I've learned about Washington football over the last two seasons, it's that there's something about playing in the 206 area code that turns these players into monsters. I have no doubt that they've spent the last week dissecting every ugly facet of the Arizona State game, and have no desire to repeat performing at that caliber for the rest of their athletic lives. They are going to be hungry, and they are going to be pissed.
The Golden Bears are one of college football's most injured teams, having lost nine players expected to contribute significant minutes to injury, either for the entire season or substantial parts of it. They've shown an inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks or to cover downfield receivers, and their offense is undergoing a quarterback controversy—even today (Thursday), Sonny Dykes hasn't announced who his signal-caller is going to be. I think that Cal will enter into Husky Stadium and get rolled by Washington, even without Keith Price, giving Steve Sarkisian his fifth-consecutive victory over the Golden Bears. This one will be over by halftime. Washington 42, California 17.