This is the 14th 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 Arizona. 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, Colorado, UCLA.
Ryan: We seem to have finally discovered Chris Petersen's kryptonite: Playing ranked teams in conference games.
For just the second time in his career, Coach Pete now sits with four losses on the season. None of them have been particularly bad losses, save the 25-point blowout to the currently No. 2-ranked Oregon Ducks. But Washington is now 0-4 against ranked teams this season, after losing to No. 16 Stanford (currently unranked), No. 9 Oregon (currently No. 2), No. 14 Arizona State (currently No. 6), and No. 18 UCLA (currently No. 11).
Washington's chances in the latter game last weekend certainly weren't helped by the unexpected (though not entirely unsurprising) departure of All American cornerback Marcus Peters earlier in the week. I don't have a problem with Petersen's decision to boot Peters, especially if the stories of his altercations with coaches and his general lack of respect toward Coach Pete's way of doing things are true. After all, Petersen is trying to build a culture at UW, and there's no better way to sabotage that effort than allowing a player to publicly disrespect it. It's a shame that Peters didn't buy into the coaches' vision, but Petersen's decision to hold his star cornerback accountable will be the best thing for the program in the long run, even if it causes considerable short-term pain.
Peters' absence wasn't the only thing that doomed Washington on Saturday, though. Many fans and observers, myself included, have grown frustrated with the Husky offense, which we can now definitively call one of the conference's worst. Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington might eventually become impressive running backs, but it is unlikely that they will undergo such a transformation in this year's remaining games. The senior-laden offensive line has vastly underperformed relative to expectations, Kasen Williams and Jaydon Mickens have become virtual non-factors—the list goes on and on. Simply put, the Huskies aren't good at scoring points on offense, which is a recipe for disaster in the Pac-12.
Talk me off of the ledge: What can we come away from last week's loss feeling good about?
Alex: I've never been a huge fan of coaches apologizing for a loss—it reminds me too much of the Tyrone Willingham days. You've covered the game's negatives, but there were good things on display Saturday, too.
In a game teeming with negatives, John Ross III's play was one positive. Ross—listed as a nickel corner in the media guide—played significant time in place of Marcus Peters at starting corner. With the exception of a missed assignment and a kick return for a touchdown, Ross was invisible on the field—and that's a good thing. Ross shut down his side of the field and forced Hundley to throw elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Bruins who were everywhere else on the field seemed to be open every time Hundley looked their way.
Some may question the coaches' decision to move Ross to defense. Ross' acceleration, speed, and elusiveness are unmatched in the Pac-12; however, Cyler Miles and the offensive coaches have been unable to deliver him the ball consistently since the Cal game. When that happens, it doesn't matter how electric you are. Coupled with the scarcity of scholarship players in the secondary, moving Ross to defense is a no-brainer. Not only does this move benefit the Huskies this season, it could also prove to be a propitious move for the future.
Ross will continue returning kicks and has the potential to be an all-Pac-12 performer next year. There will be an adjustment period for him—especially with regard to the position's technical aspects—but he already possesses the physical attributes coveted by college and professional coaches. Jimmy Lake, who has done an admirable job of preparing and mentoring the young players in the secondary, should have little trouble transitioning Ross from receiver to corner.
What do you make of the current and future quarterback situation for the Huskies?
Ryan: That's an easy one—at this moment, the quarterback of the team's future likely does not yet wear the Washington uniform.
It's difficult to swallow the reality that the troika of Cyler Miles, Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams—all four-star recruits—has produced nothing more than (at best) adequate quarterback play, but that is where we are. In six conference games, Washington's quarterbacks have thrown seven touchdowns against four interceptions for about 176 yards per game, and 6.4 yards per attempt. Each of those statistics rank in the conference's 33rd percentile, except for interceptions—and only then because Washington is among the five-way tie for sixth place.
Some Washington fans want to pin their hopes on 2015 recruit Jake Browning, who will enroll in time for spring ball. We've all heard amazing things about Browning's ability to spin the ball, but the same was true of Troy Williams, who started the year at the bottom of the depth chart. Between Jake Locker and Keith Price, Husky fans enjoyed the presence of an upper-echelon starting quarterback every year since the start of the Steve Sarkisian era with the exception of the 2012 season. For those used to such a high level of production, 2014 has been nothing short of a rude awakening.
As for 2015 and beyond, I'm not sold that the trio of quarterbacks that Petersen inherited are beyond saving. Troy Williams, especially, has the talent to throw the deep ball that has been so conspicuous in its absence this year, and I wouldn't at all be surprised to see him blossom next season after an additional year under Petersen's tutelage. But that probably offers little comfort to those Washington fans who want to see results now.
One thing that fans should find encouraging is the return of Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman from injury. How do you think their reintroduction to Washington's backfield will affect the Husky running game in this season's remaining games?
Alex: Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman's full return to the offensive backfield means Shaq Thompson can return to defense. Washington and Coleman have yet to consistently produce this season; however, both players still have the potential to prove their value in the season's remaining games.
Due to the offense's ineptitude—especially against the Pac-12's elite teams—and his penchant for creating turnovers, one could argue that Thompson makes a bigger impact by playing defense and special teams than on he does on offense. Opposing teams were able to load the box against Shaq and mitigate his impact on the game. I'm not saying they were able to completely stop him, but—with the exception of Colorado—opposing teams were able to keep him out of the end zone. The same could not be said for opposing offenses this season.
Shaq Thompson's return to defense bodes well for that side of the ball, but what about the running back position? The Huskies need someone in that group to differentiate himself, and seize the role of featured player. Coaches enjoy using a committee approach as much as they enjoy rotating quarterbacks during the game—which is to say, not at all. Ideally, the Huskies would use two running backs, with one back receiving the majority of carries while the other is subbed in for a few attempts when the primary rusher needs a breather.
If one of the running backs can differentiate from the others by showing the ability to break tackles and block in the passing game, the Huskies may find some more success on offense in the remaining games. The running backs cannot produce yards completely on their own; they need better blocking from the line and receivers. Shaq Thompson was able to produce despite mediocre blocking; for the other running backs to be productive, the offense needs to perform better as a unit.
Ryan: It's been a long, long time since the Huskies won a road game in the state of Arizona, having last beaten the Wildcats in 2006 under the leadership of quarterback Isaiah Stanback. Unfortunately, I don't foresee the Huskies putting a stop to this skid on Saturday.
Rich Rodriguez has done nothing this year if not show the Michigan athletic department how foolish it was to dismiss him. In three years, he has blossomed the Wildcats into a top-25 program with an outside shot at winning the Pac-12's South Division. Arizona also boasts one of the conference's most promising young quarterbacks, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, and you can bet that receivers Cayleb Jones (53 catches / 734 yards / 8 touchdowns) and Austin Hill (33/459/4) will make the Marcus Peters' absence more than a bit apparent.
When Washington's offense takes the field, the name of the game is shutting down linebacker Scooby Wright III. A pass-rushing terror, Wright has notched 12.0 sacks this year while making 107 total tackles, which rank third and second in the conference, respectively. On the back end, Arizona's secondary is manned by seven players who have all made at least one pick this season, including senior cornerback Jonathan McKnight, whose nine pass break-ups leads the team.
To overcome this talented squad on the road in a venue 1,538 miles away from their home turf, the Huskies will have to play lights-out defensively, and probably register at least one defensive score to stay in the game. That'll be immeasurably difficult against a stingy Arizona defense that has only allowed three points off of turnovers this season. Ultimately, I think this week will just be more fuel for the fire of those fans who are running short of patience for the Husky offense. Washington 17, Arizona 31.
Alex: It is difficult to envision a Husky victory this weekend down in Arizona. While the Huskies have struggled against elite competition in the Pac-12, the Wildcats orchestrated the Pac-12's biggest upset in 2014 when they beat the Ducks in Eugene. Unless Shaq Thompson and the Husky defense manage to hold the Wildcat offense to less than 20 points, the Huskies will have to continue their quest for bowl eligibility another week.
More than winning this game, the Huskies need to stay competitive from start to finish. Last week's game against UCLA seemed over in the second quarter, if not even earlier. The Huskies cannot afford to start slow against a Rich Rodriguez offense that can and will run them out of the game faster than you can say "Sark." Avoiding a slow start will require a better offensive game plan than we've seen Jonathan Smith put together to this point.
When the Huskies have employed their up-tempo, no-huddle offense this season, they have moved the ball effectively. With Shaq Thompson moving back to defense, Cyler Miles will be forced to distribute the ball to more of his playmakers. Unfortunately, I have little faith that Smith will employ any different strategy than he has in previous games, and consequently, I have trouble believing that Cyler Miles will find openings to distribute the ball against a stout Wildcat defense.