After being physically dominated by Oregon's offense just a few days ago, Washington must turn its focus to Arizona State, another one-loss Pac-12 team with a high-scoring offense. This week the Huskies will be at home, but ASU is fresh off of a 26-10 victory over Stanford and will carry significant momentum into this week.
The offense features an All-Conference level performer at QB, RB, and WR, and the O-line has only surrendered 11 sacks (1.83 per game), best in the conference.
Normally when your 2nd Team All-Pac-12 quarterback is injured just after the start of his senior season, it's time to panic as the season unravels. For Arizona State, the injury to Taylor Kelly (Sr., 6-2, 210) just meant an opportunity to sit back and appreciate that magic of Mike Bercovici (Jr., 6-1, 210).
In his first ever start, Bercovici attempted an insane 62 passes, completing 42 of them for 488 yards, 3 scores, and 2 picks in a blowout loss to UCLA. The very next week, on the road to face USC, he racked up 510 yards and 5 TDs in a ridiculous come-from-behind thriller. He was less prolific in defeating one of the nation's top-ranked defenses this past week, but his 23 of 33, 245-yard, 1 TD, 0 INT performance was exactly what the Sun Devils needed to pull off the victory.
And after all that, ASU has the luxury of benching him in favor of Kelly. HC Todd Graham said today that he expects Kelly to progress enough this week to make the start on Saturday.
The senior QB played extremely well in three starts before his injury, but the opponents were Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado. Which isn't to say the decision should be question; he passed for 3635 yards (62%), 28 TDs, and 12 INTs through a full 13 games.
Kelly is the proven option, but having witnessed what Bercovici is capable of doing with the game on the line, I'm honestly not sure who I'd rather see starting.
LT Jamil Douglas (Sr., 6-4, 300) made the switch over from guard during the off season following All-Pac-12 2nd Team honors as a junior. LG Christian Westerman (Jr., 6-4, 305) has been starting since the beginning of the season after struggling with injury in 2012 and playing as a reserve in 2013. While Westerman started one game back in 2012 before succumbing to injury, C Nick Kelly (Jr., 6-2, 290) made his first career start in the season opener against Weber State.
The right side of the line boasts a wealth of experience. RG Vi Teofilo (Jr., 6-3, 305) has started since late in his redshirt freshman year, while RT Tyler Sulka (Sr., 6-4, 295) started every game last season.
Douglas may be the only starter with any sort of All-Conference honors under his belt, but this is a veteran unit that has continuously excelled at opening holes for ASU's quick backs while doing well enough in pass protection to allow Bercovici and Kelly, both of whom excel at getting the ball out quickly, enough time to succeed.
Through the first five games, this unit had only allowed 7 sacks, including 3 against USC and UCLA combined. Then Stanford came to town and sacked Bercovici four times in a losing effort. I didn't watch that game in its entirety, but given the 26-10 score I can't imagine they came in what could be considered garbage time.
Stanford ranks 3rd in the conference in sacks, with 21. Washington is 2nd with 27. ASU is still 1st in the conference with 11 sacks allowed, but the offensive line will only be a week removed from their worst pass blocking performance of the year.
Even in the loss, Hau'oli Kikaha racked up another 2.5 sacks, and his 12.5 total ranks first in the country. Shelton is still tied for 6th at 7.5.
Unfortunately, the Husky defensive front was completely manhandled in the run game against Oregon. Poor tackling at the second and third levels certain didn't help the unsightly yardage total, but everything started with the massive holes opened up by Oregon's zone blocking. ASU averages 5.19ypc, 2nd only to Oregon's 5.26.
With Marion Grice gone, it's all about DJ Foster (Jr., 5-11, 205). Grice may have been the starter last season, but even as a backup Foster earned Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 for racking up well over 1100 all-purpose yards as a pass-catching back.
Now he takes the majority of the carries, with 97 compared to 28 for backup Deantre Lewis (Sr., 5-11, 192) and 19 for Demario Richard (Fr., 5-10, 210). Foster is already over 600 rushing yards to go with 372 receiving yards, with a combined 8 TDs.
Not only will the Huskies need to handle a potent rushing attack that bares some resemblance to that of Oregon, they'll also need to stay vigilant when it comes to covering Foster when he leaks out into the flat. Also look for him to run designed routes out of the backfield in hopes of finding himself matched up with a linebacker, or even to line up out wide.
Lewis has carried the ball slightly more than Richard, but the true freshman (and one time UW target) provides an element of low-center-of-gravity power that may provide useful in short yardage situations or simply as a change of pace as compared to Foster's shiftiness.
Jaelen Strong (Jr., 6-3, 215) is the undisputed star here. After breaking out last year with a 75-catch, 1100-yard campaign, he has already caught 49 balls for 689 yards and 6 scores, only one fewer TDs than he scores all of last season. He completely dominated in a historic 200-yard, three-score romp in the comeback over the Trojans, and followed it up with 75 yards and a key touchdown last week vs. Stanford.
After several weeks of deep, evenly-evenly targeted receiving corps, having one particularly good corner should finally work in Washington's favor. Peters typically stays on the defensive left, so I suppose Coach Graham can always move Strong over to the other side if he wants, but these two still figure to match up on a majority of passing plays.
Cameron Smith (So., 5-11, 195), Ellis Jefferson (RSFr., 6-4, 210), and Gary Chambers (Jr., 6-4, 210) are three most productive receivers behind Strong. Smith emerged as the 2nd option at WR with big games against the LA schools.
TE De'Marieya Nelson (Sr., 6-2, 235) starts, but has only caught 8 passes all year. Kody Kohl (So., 6-3, 230) has 7 catches, but one was a touchdown.
The 26 points ASU scored against Stanford was a season low, yet it was still enough for the win due to the limitations of Stanford's offense. That should make Husky fans nervous.
Kelly's return from injury is one major variable. He had yet to commit a turnover before the injury, but the toughest defense he faced was Colorado. If he starts despite not being 100% healthy, or plays poorly as a result of all the time off the field, we could see mistakes that ASU has successfully avoided throughout the year. However, if Kelly does look off, Bercovici can come in to stop the bleeding.
You can count on the pass rush to get to Kelly at some point, but as we saw against Oregon, the impact of the rush can be limited by establishing a consistent run game and getting the ball out quickly. On paper Mariota was harassed, but when the game was still in the balance early on, the run game and Mariota's quick decisions mostly kept Kikaha and company at bay. That's pretty much ASU's formula by default, and I fear the defense will be stretched too thin both vertically and horizontally to keep the Sun Devils under 30 points.
That would leave the Husky offense to score 30+ points on its own, which it has not managed to do in Pac-12 play.