This is the 10th 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 UCLA. Our previous chats can be found here: Boise State, Illinois, Idaho State, Arizona, Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State, California, Colorado.
"It's fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure."
This quotation is one of my old favorites, and it came to mind when I was thinking about what UW's two comfortable wins against conference bottom-feeders Cal and Colorado mean when measured against the long arc of the season, and the longer arc of Steve Sarkisian's time as UW's head coach.
As has been well publicized, Washington has lost three or more consecutive games in each of Sark's five seasons, and in fact have done so in every year since 2004. Compare that to conference standard bearers Stanford and Oregon: The Cardinal hasn't dropped three in a row since 2008, while the Ducks last suffered that ignominious distinction in 2007. Simply put, good teams don't allow themselves to go on losing streaks, especially ones that culminate in gutless efforts like the one that Washington turned in against Arizona State earlier this year. To prove that they've taken the next step, Washington needs to turn in a great effort road effort against UCLA like they did earlier in the year versus Stanford, and come away from the Rose Bowl with a W for the first time since 1995.
The Washington squad no doubt relishes its last two wins the resulted in the team earning bowl eligibility, but unless the team can learn from its past mistakes and bring its A-game on the road, they're doomed to a third consecutive 7–5 regular season.
How do you think a three-week stretch that included two pushover opponents and a bye week will affect Washington as the team enters its final three contests of the season?
Alex: The Huskies won with style over the past few weeks, which means that—along with two much essential wins—their swagger is back. And even though they failed to show progress this season against the Pac-12 elite, the Huskies have proven in wins against Arizona, Cal and Colorado that they can dominate a much weaker opponent. The final three games on the schedule will feature tougher tests for the Huskies. When we look back on the season, we will see those three weeks as the turning point for this team.
There are a lot of guys playing great football right now, including Jaydon Mickens, Shaq Thompson, Bishop Sankey, Danny Shelton—but none greater than Keith Price, who is playing the best football of his UW career. He is making good reads and even better throws. He is taking care of the football and delivering it with ease to multiple receivers. Price's throw to Austin Seferian-Jenkins at the end of the first half against Colorado epitomizes his confidence right now. On fourth down and goal in the waning seconds of the half, Price shifted quickly through his progressions before lofting a perfect spiral to Seferian-Jenkins for a touchdown with two seconds remaining. Price won't win the Heisman, but he does have the opportunity to finish a personal-record laden career with a strong team finish if he continues to play at this level.
The offense will continue its production of the past few weeks; however, I am concerned about how the defense will respond in the remaining games. While the offense has showed the ability to score points against anyone, the defense has struggled to keep pace with better offenses. Their best performances have come against teams with one-dimensional offenses, a lack of playmakers, or both. When the Huskies have faced dynamic offenses, they have struggled. Oregon had their way throwing the ball down the field and Marcus Mariota ran all over the defense when he couldn't throw the ball. Same story with Arizona State.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, they will face more dynamic offenses in the final weeks of the seasons. UCLA's offense has the potential to give UW fits in this game. How do you see the Huskies keeping the Bruins out of the end zone this Friday?
Ryan: Washington's key to keeping the Bruins out of the end zone will come down to their ability to limit UCLA's playmakers on passing downs, and to keep a mobile quarterback like Hundley from scorching them for big gains on scrambles. Luckily, UCLA's offensive line doesn't appear to be playing at the same level as their tier-one quarterback.
There's little question that UCLA will move the ball in this game, especially through the air. Though Washington comes into this game with one of the conference's best passing defenses, Hundley is the kind of quarterback who can fit the ball into a perfect window for his receivers to make a play away from a defender.
Of course, that's the result when he has time to survey the field and throw, and it's far from safe to assume that'll be the case. UCLA starts three true freshmen on the offensive line, which isn't exactly what the doctor ordered for a line that allowed Hundley to be sacked 52 times last season in 14 games. If Hau'oli Kikaha, Cory Littleton and Evan Hudson are able to collapse the pocket without losing containment of Hundley, Washington's chances of coming away with a win increase dramatically. If they can't, and the defense allows Hundley to run wild ... well, let's just say that the plane ride home from L.A. has the potential to be just as quiet and depressing as the plane ride home from Tempe.
Alex: I agree with you that the defensive line is the key to keeping the Bruins out of the end zone. The Huskies have to win that battle if they are to win the game.
For both teams this is a big game in their respective seasons. There are still several teams battling to win the Pac-12 South, including UCLA. A win in this game would keep them in contention for another week. A loss in this game would all but end their chances of winning the Pac-12 South and playing in the Pac-12 Championship game.
For the Huskies this game is the second fork of their season. The first fork of the season—a divergence between good and great season—occurred during their stretch against Stanford and Oregon. Unfortunately that fork ended with only a chance for a good season. This game against UCLA is the second fork. A win in this game means the Huskies can finish no worse in the regular season than in years past—with a record of 7–5. In that scenario, I find it hard to believe that they would drop the last two games. More likely is a respectful finish at 8–4 or even 9–3. If they lose this game, the pressure to avoid another 7–5 season will only build.
Ryan: Alright, it's time to put up or shut up. This game is going to come down—as so often seems to be the case—to the ability of Washington's offensive line to slow down UCLA's ferocious front-seven. If Keith Price is afforded the opportunity to stand tall in the pocket, then I like Washington's chances of pulling the upset.
Of course, Washington can help make Price's day easy by starting the game with a steady diet of Bishop Sankey carries. On paper, this is a matchup that should absolutely favor the Huskies—Sankey has the third-most yards of any running back in America, while UCLA's rushing defense ranks 81st in the nation and ninth in the conference—and theoretically, Sark should be able to engineer a game plan that keeps UCLA stacking the box and putting their secondary into one-on-one coverage. If that happens, and Washington is able to pull off a slick play-action pass or three to Jaydon Mickens or John Ross, all bets are off.
What keeps me from embracing this game as a certain win in Washington's inability to win road games, especially against ranked foes. If this game was in Seattle, I'd probably pick Washington to win by 10 or more. But until the Dawgs prove that they can win games like this, I just can't bring myself to predict that they will, no matter how favorable a matchup they are able to engineer. Washington 24, UCLA 31.
Alex: This is the toughest game left on the schedule for the Huskies. Oregon State has a superior home field advantage, but not a better team than UCLA. Anything can happen in the Apple Cup—as Husky fans found out last year—however, the Huskies should be better prepared this year as a result of last year's debacle.
I believe that the Huskies will be able to move the ball this game. UCLA's defense is formidable, but the Huskies have too many weapons to be stopped. Keith Price, Bishop Sankey, Jaydon Mickens, Kevin Smith, and the rest of the Husky offense will only be stopped by themselves—through penalties and turnovers. Without those setbacks, the Husky offense should put big numbers.
The other side of the ball will be the key to this game. If the Husky defense lets Brett Hundley do his best Marcus Mariota impression then the Huskies will find themselves in a shootout they probably won't win. On the other hand, if they keep Hundley in the cage—Justin's Wilcox's term for keeping mobile quarterbacks in the pocket—then the Huskies will have a good shot to pull out the best win of their season. Their defense has yet to prove they are up to the task, so I have to call it Washington Huskies 35, UCLA Bruins 45.