Here are our questions and their answers.
1. Sean Mannion has come a long way in the past year. What has been the biggest difference between him from last year to this one, and what have been the keys to his improvement?
Andy: Health first and foremost, and a combination of maturity and hard work in the off-season. He took his shortcomings seriously, and worked hard on them. His mechanics are better, but more importantly, so is his decision making, at least until the last couple of weeks. The USC and ASU pass rush coupled with the simultaneous loss of his best check down option in Kevin Cummings (the majority of Cummings' catches resulted in either a first down or a touchdown) has had a lot to do with that.
RVM: Up to the USC game it is has been his overall confidence and field vision for sure. As we saw up to the Stanford game too is that offensive line did a great job at pass protection, and this combined with Mannion's improved field vision and mechanics led to a dynamic passing game that was able to take advantage of multiple weapons out there. For me the impressive thing for him this season is much more the mental and the leadership qualities he has brought to the field. He always showed promise and skill with his mechanics, and improving those were a nice bonus for sure, but that head for the game really was able to pick apart defenses for the first half of the season. Yes, we really want that Mannion back!
2. Nobody has been able to stop Brandin Cooks all year, but has anybody been able to do anything to slow him down or frustrate him at times?
Andy: Stanford especially kept him in front of their secondary. He still had 9 catches, but for only 80 yards, plus 3 sweeps, but for only 18 yards, and that limited him to only 1 touchdown. That became the blueprint, especially once defenses could consistently double him due to the lack of other threats. Cooks can't be stopped, but the strategy of not letting him get behind the secondary at least prevents the explosion plays.
RVM: I would argue that slowing him down is basically stopping him. Yes, he will get the touches for sure but Stanford and ASU were able to very much limit him enough to force his mind out of the game at times. As for strategies Andy has hit them well I think, but I would add too that since there has been the chemistry between Mannion and Cooks that putting pressure on Mannion where he cannot get the time to set up Cooks in deeper routes also goes a long ways. Really all it seems to take with the two of them is one of those long throws down field where Cooks makes a leaping and twisting adjustment to catch the ball and it fires up the entire offense. Mannion has not had a lot of time to accomplish this of late, which also of course starts to frustrate Cooks who has to get more touches closer to the line of scrimmage.
3. Who are some less talked about players for the Beavers on offense and defense that we should keep our eyes on?
Andy: Tight End Connor Hamlett is huge for the Oregon St. offense, both figuratively and literally. His mid-season struggles with a knee injury had a direct correlation to the Stanford and USC losses. He finally got back to form against Arizona St., and was the game's leading receiver, in terms of catches, yards, and touchdowns. But the Beavers were down 20-0 before he had his first catch.
Defensively, senior CB Rashaad Reynolds has elevated his game of late, and is looking forward to the showdown with Washington. Beyond that, watch LBs D.J. Alexander and Jabral Johnson. They are real keys to the Oregon St. defense. If they play well, the Beavers are probably in the game to the end; if you don't notice them doing much, Oregon St. is probably in a lot of trouble. It's gone both ways with them, but that's usually the first key to watch.
RVM: Hamlett looked ready to break back into the game for sure against ASU so look for him to get more involved earlier. Also I am still high about Richard Mullaney, but we need to get him back into it early on too. I would add maybe not so "less talked" about since he does seem to get a good amount of press, but Storm Woods looked like he had some of his game legs under him against ASU, whether or not they can make the holes necessary to get him confident is another question I guess, but I also imagine more of Woods in the passing game Saturday night.
On defense my pick is along Andy's thinking with the LBs Alexander and Johnson, for both looked to be bringing some fire to that very important position and overall look to be getting that position more stable.
Andy: That's always a problem for a defensive scheme that's designed for pocket passers, and tends to concede the very thing mobile qbs do best. But Miles isn't a wily veteran; I expect a combination of edge pressure and the nickel and dime dbs with above average speed sitting and waiting to break on balls thrown under pressure. It took a while, but that eventually led to Connor Halliday throwing multiple picks, and even Taylor Kelly threw 2. Miles must guard against not seeing Steven Nelson or Reynolds when he goes down field.
RVM: Yep, not a lot to add here for it is fairly obvious that has been an issue for the Beavs on defense. But I agree with Andy that Miles is not a veteran, and as we mentioned above with the improved LB play and Scott Crichton up front getting some good pressure at times on opposing QBs I think the OSU defense could match up okay with Miles. I think with enough pressure that the DBs have improved enough to take advantage of rushed and poorly thrown balls.
5. The strength of the Husky offense this season has been its ability to spread teams out by attacking the perimeter with its slot players, then allowing Bishop Sankey to take advantage of favorable matchups in the box. How do you see the Beavers combating this, and how do they match up on the perimeter?
Andy: Bubble screens when well blocked have been a problem for the Oregon St. defense that lacks size, and quick slants against a defense that often has only 2 LBs, and both inside the DEs also attack natural gaps. Washington will see both safeties Ty Zimmerman and Ryan Murphy up in run support often (this has led to the biggest plays against Oregon St., when a corner needs help over the top and there isn't any), but if the Beaver defense has much success in slowing Sankey down, it will probably be as a result of moving Alexander and Johnson around, as well as DE Dylan Wynn, Oregon St.'s fastest d-lineman, who has come from both DT spots as well as his DE.
This will make Sankey (and either Keith Price or Miles) have to read the pressure, as the first choice of hole may or may not be there. There will be lanes to run in, but they could be anywhere, and not necessarily where Washington wants or expects on any given play.
6. What's your prediction for this game?
Andy: To get cold! It will be in the mid 30s when the game starts, and drop into the 20s. That could cause some drops and deflections, and I expect ultimately, turnovers will decide this one. If Price plays and plays well, Washington's offense won't "lose" this game, and the Husky defense will take from what Stanford, USC, and Arizona St. have done beyond just rush Mannion, and have some success shutting down the Oregon St. offense. That probably translates to a 27-20 Washington win.
If it all falls on Miles, making his first collegiate start, he will make some mistakes. And he doesn't want to get into a second half gun fight with Mannion. That scenario most likely ends with Oregon St. winning something like 34-24.
RVM: I predict a game that will see two pretty desperate teams needing a win before closing out the season against their fairly tough and very tough in-state rivals! I see a game that may become a little sloppy at times because of this desperate nature and the team that can find its stability more often and play confident has the advantage. I see that RVM will speak of himself in the third person and that RVM will have lots of clichés in predicting this game! Seriously though, if the OSU offense finds itself again I think this will be a very hard game for UW to win. If you all get the OSU offense of the last three weeks it could still be hopefully close or it could be go very much in UW's favor. Once upon a time I saw this as more of an offensive battle, but with how UW is playing and the improvements the OSU defense has made (enough, just enough!) I think it comes down to the OSU offense vs. the UW defense.
Thanks to Andy and Robert for all their input. Be sure to check out Building the Dam for all your Oregon State coverage.