With the Huskies halfway done with their regular season, Coach Sark has called this the "3rd Quarter" of the season and noted how strong his team has played in 3rd quarters this year. He'll need his team to come out strong to start this 2nd half of the season as they face a statement game - win, and the team (and fans) can take a deep breath and feel like a big step forward for this program is still within reach; lose, and most of the good will built up from a strong 4-0 start will have melted away, and Sark will find his seat starting to warm up a bit.
Arizona State is a dangerous team with a lot of weapons. Like much of the conference they feature an up-tempo shotgun spread offense with a mobile QB (Taylor Kelly) that has put up a lot of points and yards the past two seasons. Where they were fairly balanced last year, so far this year they are much more of a threat through the air. Prior to last week's game against Oregon, this would have been thought to have played right into the strengths of the Husky defense, but the secondary will have to regain their swagger after getting shredded by the Ducks.
The Sun Devil defense was expected to be pretty good this year with the return of All-American DT Will Sutton, S Alden Darby and DE Junior Onyeali and the maturation of DE Carl Bradford and LB Chris Young. But they've been surprisingly porous, surrendering 37.5 ppg to Wisconsin, Stanford, USC & Notre Dame. Overall they've allowed 168.8 ypg rushing and 4.58 ypc to rank 90th in the country, so this would seem to bode well for Bishop Sankey to put up another big game. Their pass defense has been better, ranking 50th in pass efficiency, but keep in mind that 4 of their 10 picks have come against Sacramento State and Colorado.
When you look at the advanced metrics at Football Outsiders, both FEI (14 vs. 26) and S&P (11 vs. 24) rate the Huskies higher than ASU. And while the Huskies have had issues on the road in the past under Sark, so far this year they've played much better. I think the Huskies have the requisite talent, coaching and schemes to win this game. I think the coaches are smart enough to self-scout and see where things have gone off track the last couple of games and make adjustments. And I think the team understands that this is a game they need to win to have the kind of season they think they are capable of. While they are undoubtedly disappointed that their Pac-12 Title hopes are all but gone with 2 losses, they can still get to a good bowl game if they finish strong. I think it'll be nerve-wracking game for Husky fans, but in the end I think the Dawgs end the Sun Devil win streak and win: UW 37, ASU 31
The Sun Devils will be the most interesting matchup for the Huskies to date given that they can be viewed at the same "level" in the pecking order as UW and that they have many of the same physical characteristics as we do: an efficient pocket oriented QB, a tough ground game, an O-Line that will give up an occasional sack and a D that sacrifices some size for speed. Add into the mix the fact that its on the road and that we have this ridiculous streak going and there is genuine intrigue.
I like the Huskies to pull away late in this one. I'm hanging my hat on the D and the fact that I think Justin Wilcox's unit is both conditioned to handle ASU's tempo and more physical than their counterparts. I expect that this will finally generate a slew of turnovers and that the a Huskies will catch a few breaks with short fields. I also like this to be the week that Keith Price incorporates Austin Seferian-Jenkins into the "feature" role in the offense. I don't buy the whole ASJ "doesn't fit" argument that has been made here. ASJ is an option with every route he runs and his match ups against ASU will be the best he's seen since the UA monsoon. Let's call it 6 catches for 115 yards and 2 TDs.
Final call: Huskies take a tight one with a strong 4th quarter by the score of 34-24.
UW 42- Arizona 31
To me, it seems like some of the teeth-gnashing over ASU is similar to the angst we had before the Arizona game. Yes, it's on the road. Yes, ASU has won 7 straight. But other than Erik Kohler and (I think) Sean Parker, no Husky contributor has ever even played against the Sun Devils. That streak is meaningless to me in this game. And although the sample size is only two, this version of the Huskies doesn't seem all that much different on the road than it does at home. I just don't see that as the impediment that it's been previously.
It's tough to get a real read on ASU for me. Yes, they average a lot of points. But that's mostly due to their performances against Sacramento State, Colorado, and the Zombie Trojans. Against better competition, they aren't nearly as potent. And even though they sit at 4-2, they owe the blatant incompetence of the Pac 12 officials for keeping them above .500 (not that there would be any shame in losing to Wisconsin). ASU can throw pretty well, but Kelly's accuracy is down a bit this year. They're a largely ineffective rushing team. Grice scores TD's, but doesn't consistently pick up yards on the ground. Defensively, they are poor against the run. They have a high number of team interceptions, but half of them came against Sacramento State and Colorado.
The Huskies match up well with this team on both sides of the ball. The Marcus Peters - Jaelen Strong matchup should be very fun to watch. Will Sutton, even with the number of double and triple teams he's seen, doesn't seem as explosive as he was last year. The return of Jaxon Hood should help ASU's line, but Sankey has picked up yards, and lots of them, against more stout defenses. ASU's secondary is solid, but not approaching "great."
I see this game going one of two ways. If the UW coaching staff - on both sides of the ball - simply decides to focus on what the Huskies do well and don't get caught up trying to match up with ASU, the Dawgs win, maybe not easily, but comfortably. 38-27. If the gameplan continues to focus on a traditional pocket passing attack, and the defense tries to match ASU's passing attack with the zone we saw last Saturday, it's anyone's ball game, and I'd give the advantage to the home team. Sarkisian came into this season looser and genuinely more confident than he's ever been as the head coach. But when he's run into those scrotum-tightening moments that invariably happen during the course of a season, he's seemingly reverted back to what he knows best. Mike Bellotti talked years ago about the full-time commitment to running the spread offense at tempo. Right now, Sarkisian is only half way there.
This is a tough one to call for me. The Huskies on paper are a better team, and I really like the match up of Washington's secondary against the Arizona State passing attack. Outside of the Oregon game, when was the last time a QB had a really good day against Huskies since Justin Wilcox took over? Jaelen Strong is an excellent receiver, and undoubtedly one of the best they'll face this year, but he and tight end Chris Coyle shoulder almost all of the passing load for the Sun Devils. Remind anyone of a certain purple clad football team from last season? Despite this, ASU still averages over 340 passing yards per game, putting them top 10 nationally in that category. I would be very surprised if they crack 300 against the Huskies.
So, back to why this is a tough one to call for me. Arizona State doesn't turn the ball over much, and most importantly they don't commit penalties. Combined with the Huskies recent 7 game skid against the Devils (and their recent outcomes playing in the state of Arizona against any team), I think the Sun Devils have a pretty good chance to win the game. Ultimately however, defense wins games. After 6 games, you get a good idea of what your team's strengths and weaknesses are, regardless of who you've played. It's clear to me that while Arizona State's defense isn't horrible, they are average at best. Their run defense is especially "meh" so I think Bishop will have a great day, opening up play action. Lastly, Washington, outside of the Oregon game (who can stop them, though, honestly?) is playing excellent defense. People are expecting both teams to hit the 40s, but I envision a lower scoring affair. Marion Grice will get 2 TDs, and Jaelen Strong will beat someone deep for a score. Call it Washington 38, Arizona State 21.