Game week is finally here, and after a day off on Sunday the Huskies begin their regular preparatory routine to be carried out 12 (hopefully 13!) times over the season. In a perfect world, a new coach for a team coming off an 0-12 season would be warming-up against an Idaho, a San Jose St., or a Nevada. This isn't a perfect world, and therefore the new-look Huskies open up on national TV against SEC-giant LSU.
Let's take an early look at what to expect Saturday night from an LSU perspective.
LSU had some issues on offense in 2008, and for that matter, the defense wasn't up to its usual standard, either. The Tigers managed an 8-5 record, which would have brought forth in a ticker-tape parade in Seattle. In Baton Rouge, however, such a finish got some assistant coaches fired.
The Tigers are likely to enter this game with little--if any--respect for Washington. Expect LSU to come into Husky Stadium on Saturday night with swagger and confidence, potentially working to the Huskies advantage should Washington come out early and hit them in the mouth. If that happens it has the potential to throw the Tigers off balance early; never underestimate the difficulty of playing on the road in a BCS conference.
I believe LSU will attempt to keep things simple, looking to run the ball down Washington's throat, minimize mistakes, and control the clock. Senior running back Charles Scott is their go-to guy; expect the Tigers and to keep handing him the ball until Washington shows they can shut down the run. LSU's offensive line has the potential to be dominating, taking pressure off of their young sophomore quarterback, Jordan Jefferson.
Washington must force LSU to air it out more than they would like. Jefferson is a young guy likely to make mistakes on the road on opening night. If LSU simply runs the ball all night and controls the line of scrimmage, Jefferson's mistakes will be minimized. Washington has to take the Tigers out of their offensive game plan and comfort zone.
Defensively, the Tigers will follow the blueprint teams have been using against Jake Locker since early 2007: contain Locker and you contain Washington's offense. They will attempt to shut down the run and force Jake to beat them with his arm, something Jake has yet to do since arriving at Washington. Washington must take advantage of LSU's defensive youth and inexperience early to prove they can move the ball with balance. That being said, the Tigers have plenty of talent and speed defensively; like USC, this roster is loaded with four and five star recruits. UW isn't nearly as fast in most positions, so they are going to have to play smarter than the Tigers in order to beat them.
Washington needs to make some big plays early to throw the Tigers off balance. There is no way Washington can beat these guys going head-to-head all evening. Look for some trickery and creativity on offense. Expect the defense to take risks and go after the QB. Washington won't be playing it safe on Saturday; Sark and company are going to throw everything they have at the Tigers.
Special teams are going to be huge. Will Mahan needs to punt the ball well and force fair catches. If he doesn't, the Tigers have the ability to bring it to the house and score some cheap ones. The Wild Bunch (as Sark calls his special teams) needs to be truly special; Washington must win this area of the game.
In past seasons, we have watched Washington teams with similar talent take opponents (like USC) to the very last snap of the game. We saw a Jake Locker-led team in 2007 lead Ohio State midway through the third quarter. With the right game-plan, effort, and a vocal home crowd Washington is capable of hanging with these guys.
Washington needs to shock the Tigers by taking an early lead and make them play from behind. Playing from behind usually has the effect of taking a team out of its normal game plan. Take away the normal game plan and you have the opportunity Washington hopes for.
2009 Game Changing Factors
Let's take a quick look at four factors which I believe will make Washington a much better team in 2009 than they were in in 2007, and 2008. Obviously there are more than just four but lets start off with the obvious as we start the week.
The Locker Factor
As many as 2000 fans have seen Washington practice on a single afternoon this pre-season. No matter how many times you watched the offense over the past three weeks you never actually saw how they are going to play the game offensively on Saturday night. The reason is Jake Locker has been practicing being a drop back QB in the pro set without the wrinkles that make him one of the most dangerous players players in the country.
Missing from practice for the most part has been Jake's ability to tuck the ball under his arm and take it down the field for a long gain. Jakes mobility promises to make an offensive line that is struggling to be adequate look a lot better once regular season play begins.
The team you see out the field on Saturday night is going to resemble the 2007 edition a lot more than the 2008 edition of the team. I just happen to think that there is also more overall talent in the 2009 squad than there was in 2007 even though the depth is about the same at most positions.
If Washington can put together some balance in the early going Jake is going to be a big factor in this one. If Jake can minimize the mistakes and make the most of his opportunities this one will be a lot closer than people think.
The Sark Factor
There is a very good reason that Steve Sarkisian has mentored a continuous string of Heisman contenders and that is he simply makes talented players better over time. USC of course always had a lot of talented players to work with but without quality coaching you don't end up being a first round draft choice.
As mentioned above I don't think any of us have seen what Jake Locker is capable of this year in practice because we have only seen one dimension of his game so far. When they give him back his wheels on Saturday and match that with improved accuracy he is going to impress.
Sark and his staff bring a lot more to the table offensively than the previous staff. They are used to thinking outside the box and making sure all the possible pieces are involved in their game plan. How many times in the previous four years was it obvious to all of us what Washington was going to run when they stepped up to the line of scrimmage?
I don't expect Sark to turn it all around one single season but I do expect this team to be a lot more entertaining, competitive, and much less predictable in 2009. I also don't expect to see that deer in the headlights look from the Washington head coach on the sideline anymore.
The EJ Factor
If there was one player Washington missed as much as Jake Locker last season it was EJ Savannah. EJ returns to be an anchor to an already strong linebacking corp. What Savannah gives Washington is a player that could start for almost any other team int he country and we don't have a lot of players like that.
Savannah is a playmaker on the other side of the ball who makes all who play with him better. Great players do that because they take the pressure off the rest of the team. No offense to Jon Gage but if you throw him in instead of EJ you lose approximately three quarters of a whole body on defense because EJ plays like one and a half players when he is on the field.
Nobody has to worry about covering up for EJ which means that plus effort he is capable of can be used to cover up some other deficiency the Huskies may face such as lack of speed and experience on the corner.
You can say the same thing about Daniel Teo Nesheim too. Daniel and EJ are all conference type performers who if free'd up to do their thing can wreak havoc with an opposing offense.
The Holt Factor
On the defensive side of the ball Washington has looked solid up front in the pre-season. The Huskies have the makings of a very good defensive line. If the promise shown by the interior players allows the DE's and LB's the freedom they need to make plays this team will surprise people.
The backfield has more experience and depth but still lacks overall speed compared to an LSU. The Huskies need to scheme and make adjustments to overcome this. Expect Washington to be very aggressive in it's defensive play calling. They are going to go after Jefferson all night and try to force him into mistakes.
The most important factor added to the 2009 defense is DC Nick Holt and his staff. Emotion is not going to be something these players are going to be lacking on Saturday night. Holt is going to have these kids sky high and ready to play. I think we can safely say the days if the Huskies coming out flat are behind us.
Holts first goal in 2009 is not to be the worst defense in the conference and the country. Washington was that bad last season even though WSU made noise that they were just as worthy for that distinction. I think Washington can climb back to a mid conference level as far as proficiency is concerned this year. Leadership is a big part of that climb out of the basement and Washington has the right guy in the leadership position.
More Game Week Notes
Practices for the general public have been closed for the rest of the season but the media, Tyee members, plus friends and family of the team are invited to watch on Monday thru Thursday. The Huskies will be practicing late this week to simulate the late start on Saturday night.
Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times hasn't made his prediction yet for Saturday's game but he thinks it will be a high scoring affair for both teams. bo makes a very good point when he says the wrapper hasn't been taken off Jake Locker yet in practice which i allude to above.
Former Husky WR DJ McCarthy returns to Husky Stadium on Saturday as a member of the LSU coaching staff. Dick Baird has a feature story on him over at Dawgman.
LSU comes in ranked as the #11 team in the country. Future UW opponents USC, Cal, Oregon, and Notre Dame are also rated in the top 25 to start the season.