In this week's roundtable, Sundodger and I trade topics with Gekko Mojo and Ryan Priest. Let's jump right into it:
I think we can all agree that our defense has taken a notable step forward this year under the new assistants. But our ability to stop the run remains a significant issue; more and more, the Stanford game looks like a major aberration. With Utah coming to town and John White IV starting to look like his old self, how concerned are you about our run defense? Any ideas on how to fix it?
kirkd: I'm skeptical there's much Wilcox can do this year; the personnel isn't going to change. He basically has to pick his poison - go for smaller, faster players like Josh Shirley, Andrew Hudson and Princeton Fuimaono to try to generate some pass rush and better coverage? Or go bigger with guys like Semisi Tokolahi, Sione Potoa'e and Thomas Tutogi to try to control the line of scrimmage but sacrifice pass rush and coverage?
Stanford was an aberration in that they are pretty much the only offense that is so heavy on multiple TE sets. That allowed Wilcox to play very big against them, sometimes with Desmond Trufant the only CB on the field, and not worry much about the passing game. Utah's offense has some spread looks, so while Travis Wilson and the Ute passing game isn't much better than that of Stanford's, it would be harder for Wilcox to get away with going totally jumbo on defense.
I would expect some subtler adjustments like seeing more of Tutogi at MLB with John Timu moved outside in place of Fuimaono, and we might see more of Potoa'e and Tokolahi at times flanking Shelton. But I think Wilcox is going to want Shirley out there a lot, hoping to get some kind of pass rush going to rattle Wilson.
This will be a game where Danny Shelton is going to have to play very well, Timu is going to have to be disciplined in his gaps and tackling, Shaq Thompson and Sean Parker are going to have to move into the box a lot and there will be a lot of pressure on Trufant (if he can play), Marcus Peters and the other corners to be able to cover the Ute wideouts at times without safety support.
Ryan Priest: I can already tell that I'm going to be the most bullish responder to this particular question. Simply put, I don't see any problems with the Husky defense that can't be summed up as products of youth and inexperience. When your front seven includes just two or three significant contributors who are juniors or seniors, it's inevitable that they'll give up a big play more often than you'd like to see due to physical or mental miscues. The good news is that the best treatment for that ailment is experience, and due to the fact that Semisi Tokolahi and Talia Crichton are the only notable box defenders who won't return in 2013, there are plenty of valid reasons to expect a more consistent and mature performance from this squad as they enter the second year of playing under Wilcox's scheme.
As for the Utah game, I'd be shocked if Wilcox doesn't utilize his jumbo package and get players like Tokolahi, Danny Shelton and Thomas Tutogi into the game as often as possible. When facing a proven bruiser of a running back and a true freshman quarterback making his first road start in a truly hostile environment, your mission is simple: Make that youngster prove that he belongs in the Pac-12. If the Huskies can do that, Sark has to like his chances of coming away with a W.
Sundodger: I agree that the defense as a whole looks much better than last season, but I'm not sure how "notable" a step forward it is. In all honesty, this sort of improvement is what I would've expected no matter who the coaches were simply because of the maturation of certain players (most notably John Timu and Sean Parker), and the addition of a second, quality, cornerback in Marcus Peters - as well as the increased depth at that position. And then there's the Thompson factor. He's added a ton of talent and athleticism to the defense all by himself. But the issues that have plagued the Husky defense for seemingly a decade are still there - there's just no pass rush, and no real production from the line as a whole.
As far as the running game goes, it seems like the Dawgs play pretty well 4 plays out of 5. But it's that last one that has really hurt them. Whether it's Woods ripping off 30 yards (almost a third of his yards for the game), or Redd's 57-yarder when the D had him bottled up behind the line, or two guys running into each other - either of whom would've had the chance to make the tackle - on Anderson's 64-yarder, the Huskies still have one or two (or three) seemingly small breakdowns during a game that lead to big plays for the opposition on the ground. Sometimes the mistakes are physical (missed tackle, bad angle, etc.) and sometimes they're mental (out of position, lack of awareness, etc.). I'm not sure how to fix it, and I'm really not sure how or if it gets "fixed" this season. It's simply a matter of making the plays that are there to be made. At some point, it's something that needs to be addressed with a talent upgrade.
As for this weekend, it might just come down to survival. White hasn't made as many of the gashing runs as some of the other backs the Dawgs have faced, but he's got the potential. It comes down to sure tackling, and disrupting the point of attack enough that he isn't hitting holes with a head of steam.
Gekko Mojo: It's hard to say that we've taken a "notable step forward" and yet actually look worse in the pass rush and in rush defense than we looked last year. I think it is more accurate to say that the DB play has been notably better and we've seen more consistent tackling across the board. I think what we can all agree on is that the schemes that Wilcox and co are rolling out there are definitely putting our guys in better positions to be successful. With that said, I do like our ability to contain Utah's pass attack because I think we can afford to gamble on the fact that Travis Wilson is going to have a hard time beating us by himself and we can drop Shaq (or whoever if Shaq is already down) down as an extra body. John White is a shifty back who gets to holes quickly - but he's not going to roll over people and break lots of tackles if those holes aren't there.
You've all heard me lament the fact that YAC has disappeared as a metric of note in our offense (unless Kasen breaks a bunch of tackles). Our passing game has seemed to devolve into screens, dumpoffs and hail-marys to Kasen / ASJ. Why can't we get receivers open in space and put them in positions to run after the catch? How do we fix it?
kirkd: There seems to be a few problems: Keith Price isn't doing as good of a job at leading his receivers, partly because he's thinking too much and not anticipating or trusting they'll be open when they should; Part of it seems to be a lack of slants and crossing patterns - I'd have to go back to tapes to see how frequently those routes are being run, but for whatever reason, those have not been a big part of our passing offense.
Sark has also gotten very fond of the bubble screens and quick laterals to Kasen Williams or Austin Seferian-Jenkins on the edge to try to get them in space. Both are big and strong enough that they often are able to get some decent gains even if the play isn't well-blocked on the edge.
What hasn't worked so well is trying to get the ball to Jaydon Mickens in space - he just hasn't been able to break free, and it's rather shocking to see him posting such a low yards per catch figure (7.1) for a kid so fast.
This issue is one that Sark and his offensive staff will need to work on in the off-season, because right now there's very little big-play ability in our passing game.
Ryan Priest: There's no doubt that the passing game isn't what Sark envisioned it as coming into this year, especially after KP's video game numbers in 2011. So make no mistake, the Dawg's passing attack doesn't even begin to approach what the coaching staff envisioned coming into the season. However, it seems to me that it is reasonable to think that Sark always expected that this year's passing offense was going to look much more dink-and-dunk than last year's did. Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar were two receivers who knew how to get open downfield, especially on broken plays, and that's simply an attribute that has failed to manifest itself in any of Washington's targets this year. Kasen Williams, whom we've all known was going to eventually be Washington's No. 1 wide receiver target since the day he revealed his father's jersey at his signing ceremony, is the kind of target who excels bringing in catches but lacks the kind of top-end speed that is essential to make the kind of 40-yard snags that make SportsCenter's Top-10 countdown; the same can be said of ASJ, though that's an attribute that's very much in line with his position (I haven't heard of too many burners playing tight end, after all). Honestly, I don't think Washington can do too much to open up plays downfield until speedy threats like Jaydon Mickens mature and get a better feel for both the playbook and the speed of the college game, and the offensive line can give KP some assurance that he's not going to be running for his life on every instance of third-and-long.
Sundodger: I think that mostly, this is a smaller symptom of the passing game in general. The receivers aren't doing a great job of getting open and aren't always making catches when they do; Price doesn't have a lot of time to wait for the breaking routes to come open, and he isn't hitting guys in stride so they can make football plays; the receivers aren't doing a great job of coming back to the ball when a play breaks down and Price has to leave the pocket (this is where a lot of the big plays were made last season); Price hasn't seen a healthy handful of big plays that could've been made down the field when he scrambles, and the list goes on. The passing game is a shell of its former self of 2011.
Again, I don't think it's something that's going to get fixed this season. The "veteran" receivers are true sophomores. The freshmen are talented but simply not ready for prime time. Price simply isn't comfortable with any aspect of the passing game - there's no confidence he'll have time to pass, or that guys will get open, or that they'll make the easy play.
If I was going to make any recommendations, I'd suggest starting small on Saturday. Slants, hooks, and maybe some deeper dig routes. Plays that are easy passes and easy catches. Hopefully, they can establish some success and confidence in throwing the ball early, and that in turn will allow them to make some plays later on. More than anything, I'd get the running game going.
Two parts to this: On paper, this game looks to be yet another low-scoring slugfest between to anemic offenses. Utah is actually less productive than the Huskies are both through the air and on the ground. Are you going to be happy with a game that plays out similar to Oregon State, Stanford, USC (sans the loss), and Cal? Also, based on stats, Utah is marginally more susceptible to the pass (in the bottom third of the conference in pass efficiency defense and sacks), but is very stout against the run (3rd in the conference at just over 105 yards allowed per game), particularly now that Joe Kruger is back. So, do you attack Utah's strength with your own, or do you game plan to attack their weakness, also with your own?
Sundodger: Yes, I'm happy winning ugly. As much as I'd like to see game-to-game progress during this season, I think the progress that is made from season-to-season in terms of wins is at least as important. Probably more so. Heading in to 2013, the Dawgs are going to have more confidence from having won more games than years past than they ever would from having played better in losing efforts. Maximizing wins is the ultimate goal for this team, and while there's validity in nitpicking how they occur, the reality is that it's just background noise.
Sarkisian has said before the last several weeks that the game is only about the Huskies, and not really their opponent. The biggest exception to that was probably Arizona, when Sarkisian made the mistake of talking about the importance of beating that particular opponent in that particular week. It might very well just be a coincidence, but that was easily the worst game the Huskies have played in the conference this season. Because of that, the Dawgs need to attack Utah playing to their strengths - which lately, has been putting Sankey back in the I and running straight ahead. The running game has come full circle this season. I don't expect Sankey to hit 189 yards like he did against Cal, but I think he could get to 130. And that's what it's going to take to utilize Seferian-Jenkins in play action, and hopefully get the wide receivers in some favorable matchups. I think the key to the game on offense is for Sarkisian to stay patient with the running game even if there isn't a ton of early success. This is a game that in all likelihood is going to come down to winning in the fourth quarter.
Gekko Mojo: Way to stoke the fires, Sundodger. Most know my position on this - I'm fine winning ugly if ugly is defined as a defensive slog where the other team mostly stops our best and we mostly stop their best, but we make a few more plays. In fact, that is what I expect. If by winning ugly you mean games like OSU and Cal where our poor play got bailed out by questionable drive sustaining calls in our favor or an abundance of unforced errors on their part...especially if they otherwise outplay us... I'll remain concerned. That said, I hope and pray that we build our gameplan around the run (just like I did in advance of Stanford - check the record) so as to not expose our OLine to unnecessary pressure. Even if we get pulled into a field position game, I like our odds better if we lean heavier on our rush defense than our pass offense. I'm very concerned about Utah.
kirkd: I have a lot of respect for Utah, so I'm not going to begrudge an ugly win. Given the matchup, I have my doubts the Huskies could win this game with a comfortable margin, so I'll take a win however it comes.
Utah's run defense is legit. Anyone expecting that the Huskies can control the game on offense with the run game is being highly optimistic. But I do expect a similar gameplan to the one against Oregon State - start off run-heavy, hope for some success early and then attack with the passing game. As much as I'd like to be optimistic about the improvement in run-blocking we've seen from our OL and the excellent vision and burst Bishop Sankey is showing, I just have a hard time imagining a big game from him Saturday night. It could be a hard-fought 80-90 yards, but I doubt he'll have a gaudy ypc average as he did against Cal. I also don't expect Price to light them up through the air - he's going to be under some serious pressure (as per usual), especially with DE Joe Kruger back for Utah. It'll be up to ASJ & Kasen to make some key plays to help out their QB and pick up some key first downs.
Ryan Priest: Call it hubris, but I'm not particularly scared of Utah's run defense (not that I'd ever say as much to Star Lotulelei's face, mind you). Keep in mind that Oregon State had the nation's fifth-best run defense coming into CenturyLink, and Bishop responded by dropping 92 yards and a pair of scores on them. At that point, the Beaver defense was not one whose rank was inflated by inferior competition; after all, they had already faced players like Montee Ball and Jonathan Franklin, both of whom were effectively shut down by Oregon State. Washington's offensive line, while young and not particularly astute regarding the finer points of pass blocking, has shown a real knack the last couple of weeks for paving lanes for Bishop Sankey and Co., who has been no slouch himself: In six conference games (including three against top-10 opponents), he averages nearly 112 yards per game. If Bishop gets his 100 yards on Saturday, I think it will be difficult for the Dawgs to not extend their winning streak.
In case you missed it, Ted Miller had a great article spurred by the news about the USC student manager who deflated game balls in an effort to provide the Trojans with an advantage against Oregon, and what it means for the program in the big picture. In short, after a one-year hiatus from his previous shenanigans at Tennessee and Oakland, it appears that Lane Kiffin is back to his petulant, childish ways (walking out of press conferences, engaging in deceptive practices against the poor hapless Buffaloes, etc.), which could very well translate into Pat Haden cutting ties with him a few years down the road if SC continues to disappoint on the field. I say this because if the Trojans convene a search committee anytime in the near future, there's little question that Sark will be one of the school's top (if not THE top) targets for that job. What do you think the future holds for Kiffin, and should a vacancy arise in Los Angeles, how worried do Washington fans need to be that Sark will bolt for sunnier pastures?
Ryan Priest: As with any head football coach, the most important thing for Kiffin's tenure is his ability to win: If he can keep SC consistently in the hunt for Rose Bowls and national championships, he'll have a long career ahead of him. However, I'm firmly in the camp that doesn't see such a happy ending in Kiffin's future. Instead, I see a coach who struggles to keep his talented team in line (witness their average of 9.6 penalties per game, last in the major college football by a healthy margin) and who will be dealing with onerous recruiting sanctions for years to come. If Kiffin doesn't reach the Rose Bowl or conference championship in 2013, I think his seat will be one of the toastiest in the nation, especially if Mora continues to trend UCLA upward.
Were the Trojan job to become available, there's little doubt that Sark would absolutely think long and hard about taking it. The conventional wisdom has long been that SC is the only college job that could possibly uproot him from western Washington; however, he seems to have genuinely fallen in love with the Seattle community and the university's football heritage, not to mention his family's comfort with the area. Sarkisian has long made it clear that he doesn't see Washington as a stepping-stone program, and if UW is a legitimate contender for conference championships when this hypothetical job offer comes from Los Angeles, I think he'd have a very hard time turning away from a program that he's completely rebuilt from the ashes of a decade of malpractice on the part of former ADs and coaches.
Sundodger: Barring losing out, I think that Kiffin's job is safe for 2013. The recruiting is absolutely fantastic, and I get the feeling that a fair percentage of Trojan fans are leery of making a change during the midst of their sanctions for the fact that it might limit the interest in the job. Assuming that's the case, Sarkisian is going to look quite a bit different at the end of 2013 than he does right now. If the Huskies manage to put together an exceptional season in 2013, he's going to be a hot prospect in the view of USC, assuming that the Trojans are looking to make a change following next year. I think they'd view him as a guy that would be able to come in and recruit well while riding out the last year of scholarship limits, and then be able to rebuild the roster in short order once USC is back to its full allotment. Since he's got the Trojan ties and is something of a known commodity, there might be an extra bit of patience with him that might not exist with some other candidates. But if 2013 follows a similar script to 2012 for the Huskies, even an 8 win regular season would appear to be under achieving to a degree, and Sarkisian will lose any luster that he might have as of right now. At that point, I think USC would believe that it could do better than him, and may look to branch out away from the Carroll coaching tree.
Like I said, Kiffin will probably survive this season. But he might be forced to make some changes to his staff at the coordinator level, which is difficult since both of them have the last name of Kiffin. I really thought Lane had grown past the penny-ante BS that he pulled at Oakland and Tennessee. Obviously, that's not the case, and it's a little surprising to me that he wouldn't be able to grow up a bit once he was handed the keys to one of the greatest college football programs of all time. But he hasn't yet, and he's probably got next year to show that he can, or it's going to be a while before he gets another shot at the head gig again. If ever.
USC is really the one college job that worries me with regards to Sarkisian. Being a west coast guy, I don't really see him wanting to go to the SEC, or the Big 10, or the Big 12. Maybe he would. But I do think he'd listen long and hard to USC. He's said all of the right things so far about rebuilding the UW, but that's just so much talk. And if he's got interest in the job, timing essentially dictates that it happens in the next couple of years, or it could be another decade, or Sarkisian could coach his way out of being a candidate. In a perfect world, Sarkisian takes the Dawgs to, at the very least, the cusp of a BCS bowl in 2013, gets courted by the Trojans, but turns them down. We shall see. The potential for a move to USC definitely adds another layer of interest to the 2013 season.
Gekko Mojo: I touched on the Kiffin issue earlier this week in Dots. In general, I subscribe to the view that Cassino has in that it would be a bit crazy to can Kiff now. That said, USC isn't every school. They have the luxury of both a stocked pantry AND a brand that recruits itself. Parting ways with the controversial Kiffin wouldn't be that dramatic of a play for an AD who did not, in fact, hire him.
Would Sark be at the top of their list? If so, would he listen hard? To the first, I'm guessing that Sark would definitely get a call given that he runs a QB oriented offense, that he knows West coast recruiting very well, AND he is thought of fondly by influential alum. On the flip side, USC can hire anybody. I imagine they'd look hard at all the options before going hard after another former OC. For Sark, I would have a hard time believing that he'd spurn an offer to be the HC of a storied program that he both attended and coached for. If we start sensing that the pot Kiffin is in starts to boil, we would be wise to start preparing a plan B.
kirkd: Kiffin should be worried. His antics would be embarrassing regardless, but when he's not winning enough for the faithful, then it becomes intolerable. If this season continues to spiral downhill, I wouldn't put it past Haden to make a change this December.
That said, I have a feeling Haden would rather let Kiffin ride out the scholarship reductions if he can and postpone the decision to dump him. Kiffin has done well in recruiting and managing the roster crunch brought on by the sanctions, and a new guy would have a pretty good base to build from post-sanctions and post-Kiffin. But he won't sit on his hands long if the Trojans aren't winning a lot of games - he's already in a position where Oregon has clearly passed USC as the top program in the conference, and if he's not careful UCLA might do the same, with Arizona and ASU close behind (not to mention Stanford, Washington, Oregon State and Utah). It's a competitive conference behind Oregon, and it's bad enough for Trojan boosters to find themselves behind the Ducks - if others catch-up and pass them, they'll demand blood.
So would Sark be a serious candidate for them? He probably will if he continues winning here, but the degree to which he'd be a top choice for them is correlated with how well he does here, and the better he does here, the less reason he has to want to jump elsewhere. Yes, USC is always going to have a recruiting advantage over the UW, and yes, the weather is always going to be warmer and drier. But if Sark turns the corner here with a 9 or 10 win season next year, he'll have this program poised to be a legit conference title contender moving forward, especially if Oregon is hit with sanctions and Chip Kelly bolts for the NFL.
I think USC is probably one of the very few college jobs that might entice Sark to voluntarily leave the UW, but I think it would be a very difficult choice for him (caveat being that maybe his wife would have strong feelings about moving back). I think the NFL is ultimately a bigger draw for Sark than another NCAA job. But if he does go, it's because he's done well here, and that would mean the Huskies would be a far more attractive job than it was when Sark was hired. I like Sark, but if he were to get lured to USC in the next few years, I have reasonable confidence Woodward would be able to hire a strong replacement.
That's how we see it - chime in with your thoughts!