This is the 11th 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, Oregon.
Alex: The only thing more grating than Joey Harrington's voice was how Saturday's game played out. Unfortunately, The Dreaded Streak will hang over Husky Nation for yet another year. Besides a strong start from the Huskies—remember the three-and-out and two field goals from Rip Van Winkle?—the only other positive from the game is the strong likelihood that they'll face a different quarterback next year when the Ducks travel to Husky Stadium.
Dropped interceptions, unfortunate bounces, and offensive turnovers doomed the Huskies. Marcus Mariota's errant pass on the game's first drive bounced off of John Timu's hands. While it's difficult to discern whether Timu would have "Thompsoned," at worst, the Huskies would have possessed the ball with great field position. Marcus Peters dropped another interception later in the game on a drive ending in a Duck touchdown.
The only thing better than Marcus Mariota's ability to run and throw is his luck. Twice this season he has inexplicably fumbled the ball onto the turf, only to have the ball bounce right back into his hands. Two weeks ago against the Bruins, he managed to dribble the ball on his way to a touchdown; last week, his dribble only managed to stop the Huskies from scoring a momentum-shifting touchdown. I guess we know someone with greater pigskin magnetism than Shaq Thompson.
Every time the Huskies seemed to be on the verge of staging a comeback, an ill-timed turnover quickly ended those hopes. Down two scores before half, Cyler Miles threw his first interception of the season. Later in the game with the Huskies moving the ball into Duck territory, Miles fumbled the ball and ended any hopes of a comeback. Coming into the game, Miles had done an excellent job taking care of the ball, but his inability to do so against Oregon made the upset impossible.
What surprised you more about the game against the Ducks—the inability to stop Oregon's running game, or the inconsistency in the Huskies' running game?
Ryan: Considering that Washington's rushing attack has rarely looked anything beyond subpar this year (such is life after being spoiled by seven years of Chris Polk and Bishop Sankey as featured backs), the defense's inability to get a stop at virtually any point beyond Oregon's first series gets the nod almost by default. Husky fans came into this game knowing (or at least heavily suspecting) that Washington's ground game would not be a strength of the offense; on the other hand, a stout defensive performance against Cal and Stanford gave many fans hope that UW could limit Oregon's signature rushing attack to well below its respectable, but hardly dominant, average of 217 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry.
Unfortunately, that assumption was trucked over by five-star true freshman running back Royce Freeman, who pounded the Husky front seven into submission by way of a 169-yard, four-touchdown performance. (For what it's worth, Washington's preponderance of missed tackles didn't help slow him down.) Coming into a game featuring established players with All-American aspirations like Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Danny Shelton and Shaq Thompson, I never imagined that the best player on the field following Saturday's game would be someone who signed his letter of intent just eight months earlier. If The Dreaded Streak continues into 2015 and beyond, I have little doubt that Freeman will be a big reason why.
The Dawgs don't have any opportunity to hang their heads, though, as they take on another team with a winning streak of their own over Washington. Though the vitriol between the fan bases doesn't nearly approach the level present in the Border War, the Arizona State Sun Devils claim a dominant eight-game winning streak over the Dawgs, including last year's 53-24 embarrassment in Tempe. Chris Petersen hasn't lost back-to-back games since 2007, but there's a good chance that run will come to an end if UW's defense can't bounce back from their wretched performance in Eugene and find a way to contain Taylor Kelly, Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster.
In the short-term, there doesn't seem to be a lot of hope of the offense improving drastically: Eight weeks into the season, it's difficult to believe that the UW offense is going to suddenly and dramatically improve on its Pac-12-worst 364.6 yards of offense per game. It's a recipe for disaster, with a red-hot ASU team coming into town. And if Washington doesn't play dramatically better in all three phases, it's a game that might get ugly in a hurry.
Alex: Unfortunately, I have to agree with you about the potential for an ugly game against Arizona State—especially given the uncertainty about the health of the Husky backfield.
While it's apparent that the Husky offense is missing both Keith Price and Austin Seferian-Jenkins to some extent, Bishop Sankey's absence has been the most glaring. No matter the opponent or what happened in the game, Sankey managed to produce. Sankey played some of his best games as a Husky against Oregon and Stanford. No disrespect to Keith Price and Austin Seferian-Jenkins—both were exceptional players and future Husky Legends—but the Huskies miss Sankey and his consistency more than anyone else from last year's team.
The offensive line has been culpable in the running game's inconsistency, but the running backs haven't exactly been stellar either. I'm tired of seeing the line open up a hole on the outside, only to see Coleman or Washington wrapped up by some 170-pound cornerback. The line needs to improve, but without more physicality from the running backs, the running game will continue to struggle.
Besides improvement from the line and more physicality from the running backs, the Huskies need to be more creative in making adjustments and calling plays. If the line is struggling to create a push, then maybe the Huskies should run a draw play. If the running backs are struggling to find holes, then maybe the Huskies should run more jet sweeps and reverses with Jaydon Mickens and John Ross III. If nothing is working in the running game, the Huskies should invert the conventional wisdom and throw the ball to set up the running game. I don't care how they do it, but the Huskies need to make an adjustment because the running game is not even close to satisfactory.
What do the Huskies need from the defense to pull the upset against Arizona State?
Ryan: For starters, they need to play dramatically better at the line of scrimmage. The defensive line has shown itself to be as dominant as we expected coming into this season, but the offensive line ... yikes.
Right now, the O-line seems to have zero ability to create push against opposing tackles and ends to create holes and running lanes. Relative to expectations (remember when we were trumpeting the unit's 117 returning starts coming into 2014 with three- and four-star recruits?), it would be difficult to say that any position group has underperformed more than them. Even more confusing is the fact that the same group (more or less) was responsible for paving the way for one of Washington's all-time great running backs last year. These sorts of steps back are supposed to happen when you replace seniors with sophomores, not when juniors become seniors. Jonathan Smith doesn't get much love for the quality of his play calling around these parts, but Chris Strausser can't be far behind him in that regard.
Secondly, the Huskies need to see dramatically better play from the quarterback position. Too many times this year, Cyler Miles has flat-out missed reads and failed to make plays that were available. Right now, I don't think there's a single fan who would reasonably expect him to lead the Huskies to a go-ahead score on a two-minute drill at the end of a game; hell, even converting a third-and-six seems to become a Herculean task for him. Hearing Hugh Millen talk about his problems on the radio does nothing but inspire more worry, too, as there seems to be little hope of Miles improving his mechanical problems. Coming into this season, I had my money on Troy Williams becoming UW's starting quarterback; seven games later, such a move is still not out of the question, especially after Williams overtook Jeff Lindquist as the team's primary backup.
Alright, it's time to put up or shut up. What's your prediction for Saturday's game?
Alex: Returning to Husky Stadium for a night game against Arizona State, the Huskies will try and keep pace in the Pac-12 North. This game will say a lot about the Huskies' resolve and Petersen's ability to rally his players.
The offense has yet to run the ball with any consistency against Pac-12 opponents. I expect offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith will be more creative in creating opportunities in the running game—running the ball with Jaydon Mickens and John Ross III on jet sweeps and reverses, more zone read with Cyler Miles (or Troy Williams) and the running backs, and possibly different formations. No matter what changes the Huskies make schematically, the key to running the ball lies with the linemen and running backs. I expect both will rise to the challenge.
Against Arizona State the Huskies will need to lean on the special teams and defense to pull the upset. Cameron Van Winkle has been solid in the kicking game all season, but he was especially good in the Oregon game. The Huskies need a good performance from him on kickoffs and on field goals. Given the struggles moving the ball on offense, the Huskies need some help in the return game from John Ross III and Dante Pettis.
On defense the Huskies must create turnovers. In all of their wins this season, the Huskies have won the turnover battle. I believe the Huskies will win the turnover battle and rally to a victory on a Van Winkle field goal as time expires.
I'll call it Washington Huskies 33, Arizona State 30.
Ryan: I love your optimism, Alex, I really do. Unfortunately, I don't see how the Huskies have enough firepower to hang with the Sun Devils.
At this point, we have to recognize that Washington likely has the worst offense in the conference. The only thing that they've shown they can consistently do well is not turn the ball over. Don't get me wrong—having a plus-12 turnover margin through seven games is amazingly helpful. College football, after all, is a game that swings on emotion and momentum, and denying opponents momentum-building turnovers can do wonders for grinding out tough wins.
But that's where the platitudes end: Opposing defensive coordinators have learned that they have little and less to fear from Cyler Miles' arm, allowing them to stack the box and stifle what little Husky running game exists. Until the Huskies have a quarterback who can take advantage of one-on-one coverage and deliver the ball to big, strong possession receivers like Kasen Williams (remember him?), I don't see how UW can reasonably expect to score more than two or three offensive touchdowns per game—and in the Pac-12, that's not going to get you very far.
On defense, it all comes down to whether the Huskies we see Saturday are more like the ones that played Cal, or the ones that played Oregon. Against Cal, we saw a group that played with swagger and without fear; against Oregon, we saw a group that was constantly playing on its heels after giving up multiple back-breaking drives of 80 or more yards. The Ducks were able to take advantage of that disposition and make Washington look more like one of its mid-2000s teams than the salty, stingy squad that we've seen throughout most of the 2014 season. With four potential first-round draft picks on that side of the ball, such an outcome is simply inexcusable.
I think that Chris Petersen will get his team to shake off last week's lost and play hard and focused; I just don't expect that to be enough to overcome a Sun Devils squad that seems to be hitting its stride. Arizona State 31, Washington 24.