I mentioned in one of the comment threads that something changed for me after the GSU game. Not so much my expectations for the season - those are still the same as I had laid out in my Gekko Files prediction post - but more so my perspective on what this staff is trying to get done with this team. You see, I had expected, as did most, that the new staff would come in and build on the foundation of talent and momentum that was already in place. That they would take advantage of the capabilities and the talents of the players on hand and scheme around it to take UW to the next level. Well, that hasn't happened.
Chris Petersen is in rebuild mode. The good news is that this team, based on talent alone, is good enough to win while it is happening. The bad news is that this team will look like it is underachieving its talent potential in the process. This reflects poorly on the kids, causes the fans to question the quality of the coaching and leads to a lowering of the collective outlook by the fans.
Which leads us to this game against ASU. Coming off of a very disappointing loss to Oregon, Husky fans and pundits alike have become very bearish on UW's chances at home in the elements of the Pacific Northwest. I, however, am not.
While I don't expect the Huskies to generate off the charts offense, I consider ASU's aggressive defense to be closer to Cal's than to Stanford's in their ability to shut down our playmakers. It really doesn't matter who is at QB as I expect either guy to be under strict instructions to push the ball against the smallish, quickish, blitzing ASU defense. And I expect some of those plays to pop.
Defensively, I like UW's matchup better than you think. DJ Foster is averaging barely over 2 yards per rush since that UCLA game and has been shut down as a rusher. He's still effective in the lateral passing game, but defending that is something that I think UW has been doing pretty well. Layer in the fact that I don't think that ASU has an answer to Kikaha and Shelton and I think that we may have a better-than-you-think day stopping the ASU defense.
To start the season, I predicted UW to go 6-3 in conference. I have only one more loss to give and ASU ain't it. ASU 21 at UW 27
The loss last week to Oregon was sobering. Not so much because of "the streak", though that certainly is a painful burr in the shoes of every Husky fan, but because of the realities that it revealed about this Husky team - namely, the offense just isn't good, burdened by an anemic running game and a limited passing game, and the defense is not as good as we'd hoped.
While some around here don't care much for advanced metrics like the FEI and S&P measures featured at FootballOutsiders.com, I think they help provide a considered and objective view of things. And what both of those say about the Huskies in general - and this match-up in particular - are not encouraging. In overall rankings, the Huskies rate 45th by FEI, and just 77th by S&P. By contrast ASU ranks 16th in FEI and 31st in S&P. As you'd expect, ASU's offense rates very high while Washington's does not. What's more surprising is their defense also ranks ahead of the Huskies. I had suspected in the off-season that major personnel losses off their defense would render that side vulnerable, and early season results seemed to bear that out. However they really stepped up last week vs. Stanford, doing a better job against them than Washington.
When you consider the approach of HC Todd Graham on the defensive side - how aggressive he is and creative with his pressures - I don't have a good feeling about this match-up. We don't know who will start at QB for Washington, but we know it's either A) a RS-Fr in Troy Williams making his first ever collegiate start, or B) a guy in Cyler Miles who has not reacted particularly well to blitzes and heavy pressure. And I lack confidence in our run game to be able to sustain drives. They showed flashes against Cal, and Cal's run defense isn't bad, so there's some hope against ASU. But I suspect Graham sees what most of us see - an offense where the passing game struggles to make plays downfield, and will stack the box to take away the run.
I also wish I was more confident in the ability of our defense to slow down a very potent Sun Devil offense. We will get pressure on their QB, because Hau'oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton are playing at All-American levels, and I suspect we will continue to be effective in limiting big plays by playing mostly Cover-2 looks and keeping everything in front of our DB's as we did vs. Cal and Oregon. The question then becomes how effective the ASU run game will be, and I think that will be partly determined by their QB situation. It sounds like Taylor Kelly is expected to start, and their zone-reads have worked a lot better with him in there than with Mike Bercovici. He might not be 100%, and that would certainly help limit his effectiveness with his feet. But their runners - particularly D.J. Foster - are dynamic, and the Husky defense will need to be disciplined in their reads, maintain gap control and tackle well, something that was a glaring problem last week vs. Oregon. Fortunately Foster is not as physical a runner as Royce Freeman. Turnovers - a major part of the Husky defense success earlier in the year - have not come easy against ASU as they've only coughed up 3 fumbles and 2 interceptions.
On offense, I really don't know what to expect. If the weather forecast holds up, it will be cool, very windy and possibly wet. While not the monsoon conditions that helped the UW limit Arizona's offense last year, they could provide an advantage, though I think we might be better off with the strong arm of Williams in those conditions. That weather will probably make turnovers more likely too, though it's impossible to predict which team will benefit (if any).
Bottom-line, I just don't have a good feeling about this one. I'd love to think that homefield, some "Husky weather" and Chris Petersen coaching magic can do the trick, but I think Arizona State is just a better team. The Huskies might keep it close, but I see ASU continuing their own winning streak vs. the Dawgs: ASU 28, UW 20
There are some moving parts that make it tough to know what to expect in this one. While Taylor Kelly is expected to get the start for the Sun Devils at QB, it's hard to know if he's going to be at 100% both due to a little rust as well as his injury. If he can't operate ASU's zone-read attack, and carry the ball some himself, he's not as good a pure thrower as backup Michael Bercovicci is. If Kelly is at his most effective, he's another quarterback in the mold of Marcus Mariotta that has given the Huskies fits in the past, and could do so again Saturday night. The Huskies should be able to get pressure on the quarterback, but they need to tackle much, much better than they did against Oregon.
The Sun Devils will blitz all night long. Not a good thing for a reeling offensive line to have to look forward to. Two banged-up Husky running backs aren't going to have a fun time with pass protection either. Overall, the Sun Devils are mostly just okay on defense, but against an anemic Husky offense, I expect they'll put up numbers that are better than their season averages. There are going to be opportunities to make big plays against an aggressive defense. It's critical the Huskies capitalize.
I had predicted that Troy Williams was going to win the starting QB job from the end of the 2013 season. With the uncertainty around Cyler Miles' availability, it's seeming more and more likely that we'll finally see what Williams can do. With only one healthy true running back (and a rushing attack that's underwhelmed even with Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman), it's not ideal conditions for a first start. But if he can stretch the field a bit vertically, especially early, he might be able to open some holes for the running game that haven't existed with Miles running the show. Williams' is a competitive kid, and he's going to have a very long day Saturday to sit around and either get nervous, or over amped to play. I think he's going to make some mistakes, but I also expect him to make some plays, and hopefully he can get some guys (Kasen Williams, tight ends) and parts of the field (beyond the line of scrimmage) that have been afterthoughts thus far in 2014 involved in the passing game.
I'm not real confident in a Husky win, but I'm calling it anyway. Dawgs 31, Sun Devils 27