This is the first 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 Boise State.
Alex: Hello, Dawg fans. Priest, I am really jealous that you will be there in the new stadium for the opener against Boise State. After an off-season filled with too much news—caused by a little too much alcohol for some of our star players—I am excited to see the new stadium, new players, and new high-tempo offense. From the pictures I've seen and the descriptions I've read, I am sure that the stadium will not disappoint. And with a late start time to the game, I am sure that Husky fans will have enough "pops" in them to have the stands rocking at kickoff. It will be up to the Huskies on the field to keep the buzz going during the game.
In terms of the new players, I am most excited to see the new class of wide receivers. With the move to an up-tempo version of the pro-style offense, the Huskies will need to rely on more bodies throughout the game. Not only am I interested to see how the highly-regarded freshman receivers fit into the offense, but also how the change in tempo affects the Huskies' offensive identity, and more importantly, their offensive output. What are you most looking forward to in the first game?
Ryan: First of all, I'd like to welcome Alex to the ‘Pound. It's always great when we can bring in more level-headed Dawg fans to the blog, and I know that you'll acquit yourself well with the regulars around here.
I completely agree with your assessment of the freshman WRs, though I have to admit that I was moderately surprised that John Ross received the majority of the praise among the three freshmen receivers during fall training camp. Back on signing day in February, Stringfellow was getting all of the love as the most likely true frosh contributor in 2013. That says one of two things to me: 1) John Ross (hardly a below-the-radar recruit) is just that damn good, or 2) Jaydon Mickens simply failed to take the proverbial next step, and the coaching staff hopes that Ross can fill the role of the speedy slot receiver in his debut campaign. In this sense, Ross' presence alongside Mickens as the co-starting slot receiver speaks volumes.
As to your question about what I'm most looking forward to on Aug. 31, the storylines surrounding the first game are so numerous that I don't even know where to start. The reopening of Husky Stadium; the rematch against Boise State from December's Las Vegas Bowl; the return of injured players like Deontae Cooper, Jesse Callier, Colin Tanigawa and Hau'oli Kikaha; the guessing game over whether or not Austin Seferian-Jenkins and/or Kasen Williams will play; how improved (or not) the offensive line will be; finding out which vintage of Keith Price Husky fans will watch in 2013; the much-discussed up-tempo pace that the offense has adopted—the list goes on and on.
All of those angles interest me, but one that I don't think has gotten enough attention yet is the replacement of first-round draft pick Desmond Trufant at cornerback. A huge reason that Washington jumped from 82nd to 31st in total defense last year was that Justin Wilcox knew that he could put his lockdown cornerback on an island and trust him to take care of business, while the team's other 10 players on the field could focus their attention elsewhere. While Marcus Peters has shown flashes of that kind of talent, he also committed some facepalm-inducing mistakes last year, especially on double-moves that led to huge gains by opposing offenses. His continued maturation into a budding star, and solid play on the other side of the field by Greg Ducre, will be a key component of the defense's performance in 2013.
My question for you: Which unit (offensive or defensive) do you think is most vital to the Dawgs starting the year off with a 1–0 record?
Alex: Good thing you didn't ask me a multiple choice question, because my answer can't be found in your parentheses. Neither of the units you mentioned will be the most essential for a Dawg victory. The most important unit during any first game for a football team—at any level—is special teams.
Special teams tends to be an afterthought, at least until it becomes a problem. I'm not insinuating that either team is unconcerned with their units; however, problems in the special teams game often don't manifest themselves until a team plays a live game. A blocked punt, a blown assignment on kickoff, a botched field goal—any of these can be the difference between a win and a loss. The Huskies learned that all too well during their final two games of 2012, when two field goals were the difference between finishing 9–4 and 7–6.
One of the ways in which the Huskies can really make the crowd a factor and bolster the efforts of the other units is a strong performance on special teams. A long kickoff return can put the offense on a short field and make it easier to put points on the board; a strong coverage on a punt can pin the opposing defense deep and make it harder to convert a possession into points; and a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown can immediately change the momentum of a game. In previous years—especially early in Sarkisian's tenure—the Huskies' lack of depth and dynamic play-making abilities meant that those types of plays were not probable, or perhaps not even possible. However, neither of those issues should afflict the Huskies in Sarkisian's fifth year as head coach.
There are valid arguments for people who say that the offense or defense is vital for a victory in the first game of a season. The offensive line, especially, needs to build confidence that it can protect Keith Price and push the opposing team around to free up Bishop Sankey. During last year's bowl game, Sankey had little trouble finding yards behind an injury-plagued line. There is no reason to believe that he will have trouble replicating half of those yards, and Price should return to his sophomore form behind a line with improved pass-protection skills. While the majority of the defense includes returning starters, there is a first-round hole and lots of youth in the secondary's two-deep. However, the defensive line can eliminate or at least mitigate the ability of opposing offenses to throw the ball. Additionally, Wilcox's defensive schemes have been successful in the past with young personnel, so it's not hard to believe that the Huskies can be successful with their current group of defensive backs.
In a first—and possibly close—game, special teams can make all the difference. For the Huskies in their first game, special teams will be the difference.
On a similar note, who do you believe will have the biggest impact on the game?
Ryan: I'm going to cop out and take the easy answer. Without question, the Huskies will live and die by the play of No. 17.
It's not just that he's a fifth-year senior, and has been in the program since Sark's earliest days on the job. It's not even that he has the greatest grasp of the offense among UW's quarterbacks, though that fact is certainly pertinent. What makes Keith Price indispensable is that, on a team chock-full of younger players, he has stepped up as the team's unabashed leader.
Every report that we've seen of Price this offseason has focused on his transformation into the kind of player-coach hybrid who sets high standards for the men around him, and it's readily apparent that there's been a dearth of that kind of leadership on the Husky offense since the departure of Chris Polk, Jermaine Kearse, Senio Kelemete and Devin Aguilar following the 2011 season. If Price is for some reason unable to play, Washington won't be down just a quarterback with considerable skills—it will be down the team's most galvanizing elder statesman. This is Price's team, and I just don't see the Huskies coming close to realizing their potential without him.
If the offensive line keeps Price's jersey clean and his head right, there's no telling what this team can accomplish in 2013.
Alex: While some may call it a cop out, I agree completely. Price is the key to the season, not just this game.
Well, I guess that it's about time to stop rambling, and start predicting. I'm going to call it 34–21 Huskies, with a late touchdown by the Broncos making it seem closer than it really was. The highlight play of the game? A special teams touchdown by John Ross that conjures up images of another dynamic playmaker from the land of Husky legends—Mario Bailey.
Ryan: It seems to me that the outcome of this game is going to come down to Keith's ability to efficiently run the hurry-up offense, the offensive line's ability to block Boise State's talented defensive linemen and the secondary's ability to hang with the 6-3, 210 lb. receivers that Boise State will line up virtually every series. Though there will no doubt be growing pains—expect to see a least a couple of snaps and handoffs go awry as the Huskies acclimate to their new breakneck pace—I think that the combined leadership of Sark and Price will keep the Husky offense rolling through those inevitable miscues. This is a game in which both offenses will get their licks in, but I think that the threat of Sankey's rushing abilities, a healthy offensive line and the re-emergence of Washington's dormant pass rush will combine with the fervor of a reopened Husky Stadium to push the Dawgs over the top in a 38–28 contest.