This is the second 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 Illinois. Our previous chats are linked here: Boise State.
Alex: Before we get on the topic of Illinois, let's recap the Boise State game. Other than the interception thrown by Price on his first pass attempt, the Huskies could not have played a more complete game. While the Keith Price—led offense has garnered much of the media attention in the aftermath of the game, I was most impressed by the defense.
I think it's an understatement to say that we underestimated the Husky defense with our predictions last week. With both offenses playing a fast-break scheme, the Boise State defenders look overwhelmed and overmatched by the end of the game; on the other hand, the Husky defenders executed from start to finish without ever allowing a big play.
Out of all the position groups on the defense, I was most impressed with the defensive backfield. Sean Parker and Will Shamburger were solid overall in defending the run and anchoring the pass game. The corners, led by Marcus Peters, made plays on the ball but even more than that kept the Bronco receivers in front of them. Though some will quibble about the lack of pass rush generated by the defensive line, they were stout in the run game, and based on the pace of the game it's not surprising that they grew tired by the end. There is a little "give and take" with having an offense that plays at such a torrid pace, and the lack of a pass rush on the part of Washington may be a part of that give. Perhaps, in future games, the Huskies will pull back on the throttle a little earlier in the game to provide greater rest to the defense overall.
After some horrible performances throughout the tenures of Kent Baer and Nick Holt, it's a relief to know that we can actually rely on the defense.
While some player performances were not much of a surprise—Bishop Sankey's assault on the Bronco defense and Shaq Thompson's constant presence around the ball—there were a few surprises. Which player or position group most surprised you during the opener?
Ryan: Without question, the biggest surprise to my eyes was the play of cornerback Greg Ducre. Despite starting as a sophomore in 2011, Ducre was relegated to a backup role last season, and his naming as the starting cornerback opposite Peters coming into this season felt more like it was done by default when none of the candidates had separated themselves than because Ducre had really seized the role and claimed it for his own. If the Boise State game was any indication, he'll have a much better senior season than I think any of us expected at the beginning of August.
Looking ahead to Illinois, I view this game as the collision of an unstoppable force—Washington's rejuvenated offense, and its plethora of dangerous skill players—and an immovable object—UW's inability in the past few years to play well on the road. What's really interesting to me, though, is that both programs are coming into this game in the midst of an identity crisis. On the one hand, Illinois is coming off of a horrid 2012, but has a promising 2-0 record and an impressive upset against a respectable Cincinnati program to show for itself in 2013. Will they continue their surprise showing of strength, or will they be exposed against higher-quality competition as the year goes on? On the other hand, for two years Washington has shown itself to be a dominant team at home that has trouble maintaining that focus and consistency away from the friendly confines of the Pacific Northwest. Is 2013 the year that UW finally turns that corner as a respectable road team?
Another storyline that has seized my attention is the way that Illinois' offense, which was beyond anemic in 2012, seems to have been given a shot of adrenaline to the heart with the addition of Bill Cubit as the offensive coordinator. With Cubit calling the plays, Illinois currently ranks 27th in scoring offense and 10th in passing offense among FBS teams. Last year, they ranked 122nd and 111th, respectively. It's still early in the season, and one of Illinois' two games was against an FCS squad, but those totals have got to be encouraging to a team that has had precious few reasons to muster a semblance of self-confidence in the last two years.
What do you expect the dominant storyline of Saturday's game to be?
Alex: While most of the media coverage since the Boise State game has focused on the offense, I believe that the dominant storyline of Saturday's game will be the Husky defense—especially the play of the linebackers and secondary.
Washington reached the pinnacle of college football in the early 90s, and the teams from that era are best remembered for the strength of their defenses. The Huskies will not return to prominence in the conference or the nation until the defense plays consistently each week, regardless of the opponent.
Holding the Boise State offense to a set of field goals was impressive, but it might be more impressive to go across the country and shut down an Illinois offense that has been explosive thus far. I know I said earlier that it feels like this defensive group is one we can rely on; however, a poor performance on the road may force my thinking to reverse course.
Unlike the teams that the Fighting Illini have faced in the past two weeks, the Huskies have the depth and athleticism on defense to match the up-tempo game. Even with that depth and athleticism, the Huskies only managed to force a single turnover. I expect that to change this week. I expect to see the back end of the Husky defense plucking the ball out of the air more than a few times—perhaps even returning at least one interception all the way back for a score. With an increased emphasis on creating turnovers and tackling better in the open field during practice, I expect more out of the defense this week, which is why their performance will be the dominant storyline after the game.
What's your prediction for the outcome of this game?
Ryan: While every instinct I have tells me that the Huskies will win this one in a walk, I'm not prepared to make such a prediction for one simple reason: The Huskies have yet to prove that they can win decisively on the road.
Were this game in Husky Stadium, I'd be confident in predicting a two-or-more touchdown victory. Though Illinois isn't currently in the AP's top-25 poll, they did receive votes following their blowout win over Cincinnati. Consider, then, that the last two wins Washington has notched on the road against ranked teams* are the Oct. 2, 2010, win against No. 18 USC in the L.A. Coliseum, and the Oct. 18, 2003, win against No. 22 Oregon State in Corvallis. That's two marquee road wins in a period of time that is just one month shy of 10 years! You'll have to pardon my hesitation to assume that the Husky starters will spend the fourth quarter on the bench.
That being said, everything that I've seen from this Washington squad leads me to believe that this is the year that they turn the corner in those road games that have proven to be the biggest bugaboo in Steve Sarkisian's tenure thus far. I'll call for a UW win with Illinois narrowly covering the 10-point spread, with a final score of Washington 35, Illinois 28.
*This analysis excludes neutral-site games; and while I realize that Saturday's contest is technically at a neutral site, it's a de facto home game for Illinois.
Alex: While I am tempted to follow your lead in predicting a narrow Husky victory on Saturday—especially based on the recent trend in Husky road performances—I believe this game will be as much of a blowout as the first.
Similar to the Husky offensive philosophy, the Illini will utilize their brand of up-tempo offense to put the defense on their heels. However, the quickest way to neutralize an up-tempo offense is to force them off the field without establishing a rhythm. A couple of three-and-outs or turnovers can easily turn a close game into a rout.
So in my mind, this game either turns into something similar to the 2011 Alamo Bowl or one of the teams takes complete control with some quick scores after turnovers.
I think it will be the latter with the Huskies taking advantage of turnovers resulting in a short field in the first half and slowing down the tempo in the second half for a final score of Washington 38, Illinois 13.