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Dawg Talk—Colorado

Alex and Ryan talk about what the Huskies need to accomplish to improve to 2–3 in Pac-12 play against Colorado on Saturday.

Cyler Miles hopes to reassert himself as Washington's starting quarterback by turning in a strong performance against Colorado Saturday.
Cyler Miles hopes to reassert himself as Washington's starting quarterback by turning in a strong performance against Colorado Saturday.
Stephen Lam

This is the 12th 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 Colorado. 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, Arizona State.

Ryan: It's hard to know what was worse: last Saturday's weather, or last Saturday's offense.

Of course, it's impossible to separate the two. Playing in pouring sheets of rain mixed with gusts of wind up to 60 miles per hour is a circumstance liable to make any offense not run by Mike Leach focus on the ground game, which in turn allows the defenses to dominate most of the evening by putting eight men in the box. If not for the sheer will power of Shaq Thompson and Deontae Cooper on offense, and the entire defensive personnel, Washington's game against Arizona State could have been much worse than it turned out.

As concerning as the offense's performance was (144 rushing yards, 86 passing yards on 15 of 23 attempts and three points outside of a meaningless drive at the end of the fourth quarter), it's hard to know how much this game should affect our outlook of the team. After all, it featured a redshirt freshman quarterback in Troy Williams making his first start (not to mention seeing his first meaningful game action) who is known for his abilities as a passer, playing in the aforementioned weather conditions that would have negated the passing game of virtually any team in America. On top of that, the offensive linewhich has struggled when playing a full complement of startersincluded two one back-up making his first start of the season; the first- and second-string running backs were out with injuries; and the receivers had more than a few costly drops on the rare occasion they were actually given a chance to catch the ball.

While the offense's players deserve plenty of blame for failing to execute their schemes, at some point, one has to start wondering if the coaches are the root of the problem. To this point, much attention has been paid to Jonathan Smith's performance as Washington's quarterback coach, offensive coordinator and play-caller, with many fans and observers calling into question his competence. Saturday's performance did nothing to help his case, as the offense scored on just one field goal and failed to play in sync for all but one fourth-quarter drive. Including a bowl game (knock on wood), Smith has six more games in 2014 to show why he deserves to retain his job next season, but at this point, it's difficult to see a realistic path to him doing so.

Despite everything that was ugly about Saturday's game, there's no question that the defense played lights-out and was an unquestioned bright spot. Why do you think the defense has been able to adjust to the new staff's schemes so well, while the offense struggles so mightily?

Alex: As you mentioned to me over the weekend, the Huskies possess an FBS championship-level defense and high school state championship-level offense. The reasons for the discrepancy are many; however, the biggest difference between the two units is their respective coaches' approach.

The most obvious reason for the difference between the two units is talent and experience. With the exception of the secondarywhose members have played really well lately, by the waythe Husky defense is filled with talented and experienced players. With several players who will be selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, it's not totally surprising that the defense has performed better than the offense. However, it would be ridiculous to say the Huskies are lacking talent and experience on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive line and receiving corps are filled with talented and experienced players; the quarterbacks and running backs may lack experience, but all arrived in Montlake as highly regarded recruits. Part of the discrepancy can be attributed to the players but that's not the only reason.

At all levels of footballfrom Pop Warner to the NFLoffensive schemes are more complex than defensive schemes. "The defense is ahead of the offense," is a common refrain heard in spring and fall camps everywhere except the Palouse. With a new coaching staff in placethat appears, by the way, to be more concerned about teaching fundamentals and minute details than the previous staffthe learning curve has been steeper on both sides of the ball. With the team's best quarterback suspended for spring camp, the offense fell even further behind than they would have given normal circumstances. Another part of the discrepancy between the offense and defense has to be adjusting to new schemes; however, it's obvious that the defensive coaches have done a better job making adjustments within and between games than the offense's coaches.

In the aftermath of the Eastern Washington gamean aerial assault led by Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams, Jr.the defensive coaches adjusted their strategy and schemes to help a young and talented but struggling secondary. Since modifying their strategy and schemes, the Husky defense as a whole has played really well. Some of the improvement in the secondary has been buttressed by the play in the front seven, but without a change in strategy and schemes, the secondary would have continued to struggle. On the flip side, the offensive coaches seem lost. Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith has not adjusted his strategy and schemes. If you can't run the ball consistently, stop trying the same strategy. Unless Smith makes some adjustments in strategy and scheme, the Huskies will continue to struggle on offense.

After starting the season 4-1, a bowl game seemed to be a lock for the Huskies. After two straight losses and several tough games remaining, how do you see the Huskies gaining bowl eligibility?

Ryan: After starting the year with talk of how the Huskies could reach double-digit wins, to now find ourselves talking about Washington's most likely path to bowl eligibility is a humbling thing indeed.

Here's the problem with trying to predict how the remainder of UW's schedule will shake out: The defense is good enough to beat anyone in the conference, but the offense is bad enough to lose any of those games, as well. Ever since joining the Pac-12, Colorado has been the conference doormat, but after taking UCLA to double-overtime (remember when the Bruins were playoff contenders? That was a good one!), the Buffaloes are positively itching to make a statement win against a conference opponent. The five-point spread that favors Washington aside, it seems as if Washington is entering this game on its heels, while the Buffs have the wind, if not at their backs, then at least not blowing directly into their faces. With the possible exception of Oregon State's visit to Montlake, this is probably the most winnable game left on Washington's schedule, and even then, going to Boulder isn't the sure thing that it was in 2011 and 2012.

Against UCLA, the Huskies will face a team that, much like themselves, has failed to meet preseason expectations. Their porous offensive line should make a lovely five-course meal for Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikaha (I'm beginning to believe that his initials might actually stand for "Hunter-Killer"), but Brett Hundley is still arguably the most dynamic quarterback in the conference not named Marcus. Containing him will be difficult for the Dawgs, though it's certainly a doable task.

Beyond that, it's more difficult to prognosticate the outcomes of game due to the injuries and other obstacles that will inevitably occur between then and now. But based on what we know now, there's no opponent left on Washington's schedule that qualifies as an easy out. The Huskies could legitimately finish 2014 at 10-3 while notching their first double-digit win season since 2000, or stagger to 5-8 while missing a bowl game for the first time since 2009. The only thing that we know is that whatever happens now will surely set the tone for Chris Petersen's tenure in the years to come.

Alex: Unfortunately, I agree with you about the potential outcomes facing the Huskies this season. While a double-digit win total is still possible, the Huskies will need more consistent play at quarterback to realize those aspirations. This week should be very telling as Cyler Miles returns to his home state of Colorado as the starting quarterback.

For the past three years, Keith Price spoiled Husky fans. Any consternation caused by his play was due to the outsized expectations that we put on him. Husky fans, myself included, always expected more from him. After a record-breaking sophomore season, anything seemed possible for him and the Huskies in the future. While Price did not win the Heisman trophy or lead the Huskies to a national championship, he was tough, tenacious, and present for the Huskiesthrough the ups and downsin the last three years. The Huskies are still searching for his replacement.

Cyler Miles has the rest of this season to prove that he is the quarterback of the future at UW. Jeff Lindquist may not be a factor in the futureI would not be surprised to see a position change for him in the offseasonbut Troy Williams, KJ Carta-Samuels and Jake Browning will all be factors in that race. Miles' play in the remaining games will do much to determine not only this season's outcome for the Huskies, but also his odds of remaining the team's starting quarterback.

Alright, it's prediction time. Who have you got emerging victorious in the Rocky Mountains?

Ryan: For the first time since Washington trounced the Golden Bears in Berkeley, I can say that I'm confident in the Huskies coming away with a win.

That sentiment, however, comes not from confidence in the Husky offense's ability, but rather from a lack of confidence in Colorado's defense. Through eight games, the Buffs have surrendered an average of 192.6 rushing yards, including a season-worst 309 yards and four touchdowns last week to the Bruins. Even with injuries to Jesse Callier and Dwayne Washington, I expect Lavon Coleman and Deontae Cooper to put enough steady pressure on the Colorado defense to open up the possibility of hitting a home-run play or two to John Ross in the passing game.

On defense, there's no reason that we shouldn't expect the Husky front seven to continue to play as dominantly as they have to this point. Sefo Liufau is a promising young quarterback, to be sure (just ask onewoodwacker if you need a primer), but he also has a tendency to make mistakes: After not throwing an interception in the season opener against Colorado State, Luifau has thrown at least one pick in each game he has played, including four in his last two contests.

Last but not least, one other aspect of the game bears mentioning: the importance of the field position battle. The Dawgs need to continue playing well in their coverage units while not allowing maddening clipping penalties to continue to negate big returns by John Ross and Dante Pettis. Meanwhile, Korey Durkee needs to display his mental toughness by bouncing back from a rough outing in horrid conditions last week against ASU, and pin the Buffs deep in their own territory when given the chance.

Colorado will score some points, but I expect Washington will handily win the turnover battle (plus-three or so, I'm thinking) en route to a comfortable but not dominant victory. Washington 34, Colorado 20.

Alex: This Colorado game could really go either way. How the Huskies start and finish the game will be the difference. A fast start and furious finish are necessary for the Huskies to leave Boulder with a win.

To start fast, the Huskies need strong play from their special teams units. They cannot afford a breakdown that leads to a Buffalo touchdown, or negates a touchdown for their own returners. Cameron Van Winkle has been a solid kicker in non-hurricane environments, and I suspect that he will be given a few opportunities to "rip one" in the thin Rocky Mountain air.

From this game forward, I expect nothing but the best from the defensewhether Touchdown Thompson joins the party or not. The young secondary will be tested, but the defensive line should mitigate the secondary's challenges in coverage. However, what the defense really needs is some help from offense to stay fresh throughout the game.

Cyler Miles and the offense need to find a rhythm early. Whether that comes from running or throwing the ball doesn't matter; what matters is that the ball moves up and down the field, and that the Huskies finish their drives in the end zone. Finding an early rhythm will not just benefit the offense, eitherit will also keep the defense from playing 400 plays in the first three quarters (that may be a bit of an exaggeration) and allow them to finish strong.

I'll call it Washington Huskies 41, Colorado Buffaloes 31.