This is the 10th entry in an ongoing series between Ryan Priest and Alex Hyres. Each week during the season, we'll look at the state of the Husky football program, break down the major story lines surrounding the team, and give predictions for the games. Up this week is Georgia State. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp, Hawaii (Week One), Hawaii (Week Two), Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State, Stanford, Bye Week, Cal.
Ryan: As it turns out, Chris Petersen is really, really good when he is coming off of a bye week.
With Saturday's win over Cal, Petersen improved to 19-2 in his career in games with two weeks or more to prepare for his opponent. And even more promisingly, the Huskies played their most complete game of the season. Cyler Miles finally showed that he could uncork a downfield passing game, John Ross showed us again why he is among the most electric players in college football, and Shaq Thompson continued to display his talent to the NFL general managers who must by now be salivating over the thought of taking him in next year's draft.
And while it's understandable why some would caution against drawing any grandiose conclusions about the Huskies finally clicking on all cylinders (Cal's defense would have made our intramural team from back in the day look like All-Americans), it's hard not to feel very, very good about a defense that limited a high-octane opponent to just one scoring drive, especially after the Bears dropped 119 points in their two most recent games. Shaq Thompson will get the lion's share of attention, sure—registering a 99-yard scoop-and-score tends to do that—but just as important was Danny Shelton's ability to consistently collapse the pocket, Hau'oli Kikaha's tendency to make the Cal tackles look silly, and the young secondary's refusal to give up a single play of more than 25 yards.
What aspect of Saturday's game do you think answered outstanding questions for the Dawgs? Conversely, what are their biggest weaknesses as we approach Saturday's game against the Ducks?
Alex: Well-documented throughout the Huskies' season has been the inexperience and uneven play by the defensive secondary. Some, including myself, believed the secondary only played well against Stanford due to their mediocre passing attack. Against one the best passing attacks in the nation, the Husky secondary played exceptionally well.
Whether it's a change in philosophy (less man and more zone coverage), continued development (more game repetitions and experience), help up front (a better pass rush), or a combination of these factors, the secondary was stout from start to finish. With a plethora of pass-happy teams left on the schedule, strong play in the secondary will be essential to the Huskies' success. The Ducks should provide the secondary with another difficult test; however, I expect the defensive front to cause mayhem against an undermanned Duck offensive line, buttressing the secondary's efforts. While the secondary's play answered the call against Cal, the Huskies still have a few areas that need to be shored up.
The biggest weaknesses for the Huskies are both on offense—running the ball consistently, and getting the ball to the team's playmakers. At times, the Huskies ran the ball well against Cal; at others, the Dawgs couldn't move the ball on the ground at all. The line needs to create a better push, and the running backs need to do a better job of breaking tackles. After being treated to four years of Chris Polk and three years of Bishop Sankey, both elusive and physical in their own ways, Washington's running back play in 2014 has been disappointing by comparison. For the Huskies to be consistent in the running game, the backs need to put their inner Shaun Alexander to rest and instead summon their inner Beast.
Besides running the ball consistently, the offense needs to deliver the ball to their playmakers with greater frequency using more creativity. I'll use John Ross III as an example. With about two minutes left in the second quarter, Ross—the fastest, most electric player in the whole Pac-12—had only been targeted once. With the second quarter winding down, offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith called a receiver screen to Ross. You might remember the result. If Smith really believes that "it's like a video game when that guy touches the ball," he should employ my strategy from the NCAA Football video games—give the ball to my best player until the other team stops me from doing so.
What do you think will most decide whether the Huskies pull the upset against the Ducks at Autzen?
Ryan: For the Huskies to break The Dreaded Streak (yes, that belongs in capital letters), the Huskies are going to have to play mistake-free football while forcing the Ducks into making a handful of mistakes of their own. Fortunately, we've seen enough of the Huskies with Chris Petersen at the helm to believe that such an outcome is possible, and maybe even likely.
One statistic I've seen floating around the Twittersphere this week is that only three quarterbacks have thrown 100 passes this season without throwing an interception, and that two of them—Cyler Miles and Marcus Mariota—are going to face off this weekend. (The other is Utah's Travis Wilson.) Simply put, if Mariota—who is perhaps the best player in college football when he's not hampered by nagging injuries—finishes Saturday's game with that streak intact, the Huskies are going to lose. Washington's defense must make Mariota uncomfortable and force him into some mistakes. And when he makes those mistakes, he can't be allowed to capitalize on them the way he did last week against UCLA, when he fumbled and completed the rare offensive-scoop-and-score. In short, Washington's defense—which has played some excellent games thus far—needs to play its fastest, toughest, nastiest game yet, in which all 11 players on the field bring their A-game each and every play.
Is that doable? Yes. Is it likely? Probably not. After all, there are more than a few first- and second-year players in Washington's defensive secondary who will see meaningful playing time, and with all due respect to Vernon Adams, Marcus Mariota will assuredly be the best opposing quarterback the Huskies have faced to this point. Some of those young players will make mistakes, and you can bet your mortgage that Mariota will capitalize on those situations; it's just what a player of his caliber does.
On the other hand, Oregon's offensive line has never looked as vulnerable as it does now, and it matches up with a Washington defensive front-seven that is more packed with star players than any other in recent memory. If the defense can limit Mariota to turning in a merely good performance rather than a transcendent one, holding the Ducks to 30 or so points in the process, I think the Dawgs have a great shot at notching the upset in Autzen Stadium.
We saw Washington's offense come alive against an admittedly weak Cal defense last week, and it's easy to conclude that the Huskies are peaking at just the right time for a contest such as Saturday's. Who on the offense needs to step up their game for the Huskies to walk away with a win?
Alex: For the Huskies to stay with Ducks on Saturday they will need a strong effort on defense; however, it's almost impossible to imagine the Huskies upsetting the Ducks without moving the ball consistently and scoring touchdowns.
To move the ball consistently and score touchdowns, the Huskies must continue to take care of the football. Cyler Miles will be key in meeting that goal. As you mentioned, Miles has been exceptional in possessing the ball and limiting extra opportunities for the other team. For the Huskies to win, Miles will need to continue his careful ways with the ball.
Another key to moving the ball consistently and scoring touchdowns will be a meaningful contribution from Miles in the running game. As I mentioned previously, the Huskies are still struggling to run the ball consistently. If Miles can provide some yards on the ground and be seen as a threat to run, the running backs should see a few more holes open up. Even if Miles manages to protect the ball and to be a threat in the running game, the biggest key will be his play in the red zone.
Teams who settle for field goals in the red zone against the Ducks don't beat them. The Huskies will need to be especially consistent and efficient in the red zone. Being consistent and efficient in the red zone for the Huskies in this game will require running the ball and throwing the ball into tight windows. Miles should help in the running game, but he will have to make some tough throws near the goal line for the Huskies to come away with a win. Kasen Williams (remember the highly regarded recruit with a big body and exceptional leaping ability?) could make some of those tough throws a little easier for Miles.
What's your pick for Saturday's game?
Ryan: I really, really think that the Huskies have a great shot at pulling the upset. What's more, I'd hate to look back at a Husky win, the first since the Bush administration, and forever know that I went into that game having picked the Ducks to win. All this is to say how much it pains me to admit that I don't see the anguish of the Washington fan base coming to an end this year.
First things first, though: The Washington defensive front seven have the size and skill to control the line of scrimmage and put the Ducks into second-and-11, third-and-8-types of situations, which is key to negating Oregon's up-tempo attack and making Mariota uncomfortable. Oregon is at its most dangerous when controlling the pace of the game by methodically gaining yards on its drives: first-and-10, second-and-three, first-and-ten, second-and-two, etc. The Dawgs need to create negative plays and put the Ducks in uncomfortable situations; otherwise, Marcus Mariota absolutely has the talent to engineer more than a few of those "what just happened?" drives in which the Ducks seem to score 21 points in the blink of an eye.
When Washington controls the ball, it's absolutely imperative that they establish a running game via the two-headed monster of Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington, and get the ball to playmakers like John Ross and Jaydon Mickens. It'll also be imperative that they execute the one or two trick plays that you just know Coach Pete has cooked up for this game.
All of this, however, doesn't change the fact that when I take off my purple shades, I just don't see how an offense that has been mediocre at best walks into the toughest venue in the conference and knocks off the No. 9 team in the country featuring the most dangerous quarterback in the game. It pains me to say it, but Oregon 38, Washington 28.
Alex: The Dreaded Streak has to end at some point. Every year for the past decade, I've talked others and myself into believing that THIS is the year that the Dreaded Streak ends. So in keeping with tradition, here's why the Dreaded Streak will end THIS year.
When the Duck offense is operating at full tilt, they are running the ball consistently and throwing the ball off play-action. The key to the offense is running the ball—including the quarterback. For the Huskies to stay with the Ducks, they need to stop the run. I expect the Huskies to win the battle between their defensive line and the Duck offensive line. Linebackers Travis Feeney, John Timu, and Shaq "Touchdown" Thompson possess the speed and athleticism to keep the Ducks from creating explosive plays on the ground. Without a consistent running game, the Ducks will struggle to make explosive plays in the passing game.
On offense the Huskies must run the ball consistently and get the ball to their playmakers. Lavon Coleman and Dewayne Washington need to be physical and Cyler Miles needs to be a threat in the run game. Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith needs to ensure that John Ross touches the ball at least ten times, so we can see plays like this, this, and this. With some explosive plays from Ross and an obligatory touchdown from Thompson, the Huskies should have just enough for the upset.
I'll call it Washington Huskies 38, Oregon Ducks 35.