This is the fourth 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 Idaho State. Our previous chats are linked here: Boise State, Illinois, Idaho State.
Alex: Penalties. Penalties. Penalties. All I saw was penalties. Well, maybe there was some dominant play by the defense and some explosive plays by the offense. But at certain times in the game, it seemed like there was a penalty every other play for the Huskies against Idaho State.
While I think there are certain times where the Huskies have been culpable for the plethora of penalties that have been called upon them, I think that their troubles have had a lot more to do with the officials. Last year, there were 10 Pac-12 teams among the top-50 most-penalized teams, with UW second to UCLA, who led the nation in "cheating." Already this year, there are seven Pac-12 teams in the top-50 most-penalized teams. As long as Pac-12 officials are officiating Pac-12 games, there will plenty of penalties.
Though it's easy to blame the officials, it does seem that the Huskies should be finding ways to avoid penalties, especially infractions of the pre-snap variety. However, there are certain penalties that are harder to avoid—especially in the flow of the game. Asking players to tone down their aggressiveness to avoid penalties has more of a negative than a positive effect, in my opinion. I'd rather deal with penalties because guys are being too aggressive or too physical on certain plays, than deal with watching a bunch of softies on every play. I think that's enough about the penalties.
In last week's column, I talked about the value of being able to build confidence for some of the younger guys as the Huskies move into Pac-12 play. John Ross III showed some elite explosiveness in taking a bubble screen to the house without even smelling a Bengal on his way to the end zone. His speed and elusiveness will be valuable in Pac-12 games when teams are stacking the defense against Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Bishop Sankey. Stepping into the purple end zone for the first time should build the confidence that Ross can return there throughout Pac-12 play.
What were you most impressed with during this pre-season last non-conference game?
Ryan: Asking me what I was most impressed with in the Idaho State game is only going to elicit a loaded response from me, because I've convinced myself so thoroughly that these FCS vs. FBS competitions are worse than meaningless. I spoke at length last week about why I have no time or tolerance for these sort of matchups, so I'll refrain from doing so again, but I want to have it on the record that I don't believe you can really take away anything from a game in which one side's only chance of winning something began and ended with the coin toss.
With that off of my chest, I thought Sark did a fantastic job on Saturday of ensuring that every eligible player got reps against a live opponent, even if they weren't particularly meaningful snaps. In Sarkisian's early tenure, his teams sorely lacked both age and experience, and situations like the one on Saturday when the No. 1s are off the field by halftime offer a great chance for players who haven't seen the field yet to get their feet wet in a safe environment, while still absorbing the experience of playing in front of thousands of screaming fans. That experience was particularly meaningful for Cyler Miles, who showed an ability to run the read-option that UW has never seen from Price. And what can I say about Deontae Cooper's first touchdown in a Husky uniform that hasn't been better said by a hundred others? It was an emotional moment to see his grit and perseverance finally pay off, because nobody deserved to be rewarded more than No. 32.
As for the penalties the UW seems to be accumulating with impunity, I'm not sure what the solution is. I get your stance that you don't want to take away a team's nasty edge by forcing them to play hesitant, but I also think you can play tough football without averaging 12 penalties per game. There are absolutely zero legitimate excuses for why this squad is on pace to accumulate more penalties than any other team in America, and if they're unable to clean that up, it's going to cost them a conference game or three that they otherwise should have won. That being said, Sark has never been particularly associated with running lawless programs, so I expect them to get substantially better in this phase of the game, starting with Saturday's game against the Wildcats.
Last year, Arizona handed Washington its most embarrassing defeat in games not called the Apple Cup, rolling to a 52-17 victory and shutting out Washington in the second half. That game in particular was a tour de force of everything that afflicted Washington's offense in 2012, especially concerning Keith Price. What changes from last season to this year make you think that Washington will reverse their misfortunes from the Arizona game a year ago? Conversely, what aspects of the matchup do you think the UW players and staff should be worried about going into Saturday's game?
Alex: The obvious difference between this year's team and last year's team is the offense. Last year, due to a myriad of reasons—foremost among them being injuries and poor play on the offensive line, which led to turnovers and bad decision-making by Keith Price—the offense never really established an identity. The result was an offense that played tentatively and conservatively .
With a clear identity this year, Arizona will be forced to defend all facets of the Husky offensive scheme. Bishop Sankey should warrant a lot of attention from the Wildcat defense, which will open up the passing game for Keith Price and company. Sankey could also provide a relief—especially late in the game—to a Husky defense that admitted earlier this week to being worn down by Arizona's offensive pace last year. In a game that has the potential to turn into a track meet, the team that is most able to run the ball at the end of the game will hold the edge.
The matchup that the Husky coaching staff should be most worried about is the defense against Wildcat quarterback B.J. Denker. Denker may not be consistent throwing the ball; however, his ability to run the ball alongside Ka'Deem Carey will require the Husky defense to stay disciplined in their assignments and tackling. If the Huskies can stop or mitigate the number of big plays generated by the high-tempo Wildcat offense, it will give their own offense the opportunity to wear-down the Wildcat defense.
Besides a victory, what do you hope to see from this Husky team before they head into the gauntlet of games against the top teams in the league?
Priest: In my mind, two factors will dictate whether or not this weekend is a success. First of all, they need to win this game; second of all, in doing so, they need to accumulate far less penalties than they have in their previous games.
Make no mistake: Washington may be 3-0, but they have not played even close to their best football. Unless they are able to play in a more disciplined manner that minimizes their self-inflicted wounds, they are virtually certain to go 0-2 against Pac-12 North powerhouses Stanford and Oregon in the next two weeks.
Alright, it's prediction time—what do you see going down on Saturday in what is both teams' conference opener?
Alex: Throughout the season, Steve Sarkisian has been trumpeting "the process"—a belief that the Huskies prepare the same day in and day out regardless of the opponent. With several big games ahead, we will see how well "the process" has been internalized by Sarkisian's players.
Not only will this game be a good assessment for the Huskies and their season's trajectory, but in terms of the Pac-12 I think it will show the widening gap between the North and South Divisions. Outside of UCLA, the South Division is much weaker in a team-by-team comparison—most recently evidenced by Washington State's victory over USC in the Coliseum a few weeks ago. This game will provide further evidence of the North Division's strength.
I predict that the offense will continue to hum, with the Huskies marquee offensive playmakers, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams, having big games to supplement the steady work of the Bishop—who wears down the Wildcats late in the game. The defense and special teams will prove the difference by setting up the offense with several short fields. I'll call it Washington Huskies 42, Arizona Wildcats 24.
Ryan: I'm in the same boat as you, in that I think Washington's offense will be the key to this game. In their three cupcake games this season, the Wildcats have been dominant on defense, but I firmly believe that to be the result of their quality of competition. Arizona returned all 11 starters on its defense, and though they're all another year older and wiser, this is still the same team that ranked at or near the bottom of the conference in virtually every meaningful statistic last year.
The x-factor that could shift the tone of this game, of course, is what we've talked already talked about at length in this column: Washington's propensity for committing stupid penalties. If the Huskies kill a handful of their drives with holding and personal foul penalties, it could easily swing the momentum of a contest that should be firmly in their favor.
Call it blind optimism, but I think that the importance of their first conference game galvanizes the Huskies into playing their smartest game of the year. (Not to mention the endless number of up-downs and wind sprints I imagine they were forced to go through on Monday to atone for last week's flag-ridden contest against Boise State.) Carey will break off a few solid runs, and Denker will probably sneak a zone-read past the defensive line a few times, but the Wildcats' absence of a passing game is what will really doom their chances on Saturday. I see the game turning out Washington 42, Arizona 24.