This is the 16th 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 Washington 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, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State.
Ryan: On Saturday, we saw the continued late-season metamorphosis of Washington's offense: still mistake-prone, but leaps and bounds more efficient than anything we saw in the season's first games.
The most obvious reason for that adjustment seems to be that Cyler Miles is starting to learn the importance of properly playing the quarterback position. A few months ago, Cyler would make just his first (maybe second) read on a pass play before tucking the ball and running. Furthermore, if the opposing defense blitzed one or more linebackers or defensive backs, you could bet your bottom dollar that he would either throw the ball away immediately, or try in vain to dance around them before getting dropped for the inevitable four-yard loss.
In this last two games against Arizona and Oregon State, though, Cyler has looked ... proficient is too strong a word, but capable certainly isn't. It's really encouraging to see him step up in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of incoming pressure, since those are the types of throws that he will have to make consistently if he's to be a Pac-12 caliber QB.
Also, can we get a helmet sticker for Mike Criste? It's really something to see how much easier it is for an offense to operate when the center delivers the ball to his quarterback sharply and predictably. I wondered all season why the coaching staff seemed hell-bent on sidelining a pre-season Rimington Trophy candidate, and I still don't understand why it took so long to make what seemed to be an obvious adjustment when Tanigawa was so clearly struggling in that role.
On defense, the Huskies turned in a strong effort, but failed to deliver the decisive by allowing the Beavers to convert an obscene third-and-25 from their own five-yard line in the second quarter. What adjustments do the Dawgs need to make in order to support a secondary that is vulnerable to giving up the big play?
Alex: The long pass from Sean Mannion to Victor Bolden in second quarter was not a physical breakdown. Rather, mental lapses and undisciplined eyes caused that breakdown by Sidney Jones IV and Budda Baker.
Based on their alignment and movement during the play, the Huskies were playing a coverage scheme called Cover-3. In Cover-3, which is a basic zone coverage scheme employed by most teams, the corners and one safety are responsible for any players who start or cross into their third of the field. In addition to understanding the situation—score, down and distance, receiver alignment--identifying and tracking possible targets with their eyes is essential for all defensive players especially when they using a zone scheme for pass coverage.
Jones and Baker failed to understand the situation and stay disciplined with their eyes. The Beavers were not just in a third-and-long situation: They were also gasping for momentum. The Beavers needed a first down, but more importantly, they needed a momentum-swinging play. Jones needed to keep everything in front of him—which he failed to do—and Baker needed to track all of Mannion's possible targets—which he also failed to do. Consequently, the Beavers converted a first-down and gained a great deal of momentum. Fortunately for the Huskies, Jones and Baker quickly put the miscue behind them and managed to play well the rest of the game.
For the Husky defense—especially the secondary—to be successful against the Cougar's Air Raid offense, the coaching staff needs to mix coverage schemes and apply pressure to quarterback David Falk with a three- and four-man defensive line. Mike Leach's offense relies on the quarterback smartly adjusting to the defense right before the snap and during the play. All college offenses have some elements that require adjustment before and during the play; however, Leach's offense is more predicated on adjustments by the quarterback and receivers than usual. By mixing coverage schemes and applying pressure to the quarterback, the Husky defense should be able to create turnovers amidst confusion between the quarterback and receivers.
Cyler Miles has played consecutive efficient and productive games at quarterback. What does he need to do in the season's remaining games to secure the starting quarterback nod heading into spring football?
Ryan: After putting up solid games against respectable defenses, Cyler has safely transformed himself into the team's presumed returning starting quarterback. That couldn't have been said just a few weeks ago.
In his two most recent games against Arizona and Oregon State, Miles has completed 73 percent of his passes for 476 yards and two touchdowns against zero interceptions and 9.15 yards per attempt. Those numbers are remarkable, but they are marred by the fact that he has put the ball on the ground four times, including three fumbles in the Arizona game. Luckily, those four turnovers yielded just seven points—but there's no guarantee that the ball will continue to bounce Washington's way. Good football teams don't give their opponents footholds to make their way back into games, and limiting turnovers is the best way to accomplish that particular goal.
To keep hold of his position as the team's starting quarterback, Cyler is going to become substantially better at taking care of the football. Right now, Miles has yet to learn the value of taking a sack and living to fight another down. Think back to the fumble he had after Colin Tanigawa's errant snap with about 40 seconds remaining in the first half of the Arizona game: If Cyler simply falls on the ball, the Huskies retain possession and at worst punt the ball away, preventing Arizona from scoring seven points in what turned out to be a one-point game.
It's easy to admire Cyler's tenacity and willingness to make an effort to create plays, but he needs to learn the value of conceding individual plays and to not put the team at risk by playing carelessly. If he's able to show continued maturation under Chris Petersen and Jonathan Smith's direction in 2015, there's no reason he won't be able to become an upper-tier Pac-12 quarterback, odd throwing mechanics be damned.
Since Connor Halliday's unfortunate season-ending leg injury, Luke Falk has taken Cougar nation by storm by playing at a higher level than many thought possible of a former walk-on thrust into the starting role mid-season. What does the Husky defense need to do to limit his effectiveness?
Alex: Since quarterbacks in Leach's system throw the ball almost every down, their level of comfort and rhythm correlate with the team's success. If Luke Falk is able to find comfort in the pocket and rhythm with his receivers, the Husky defense will be in for a long day. If Luke Falk feels the pressure and struggles to find rhythm, the Huskies will be successful in limiting his production in the passing game.
Andrew Hudson, Evan Hudson, Hau'oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton, as usual, will be key to generating pressure in the pocket on Falk. Though the Cougars have struggled as a team, the offensive line has done a good job protecting the quarterback. If the Huskies can continue their dominance in the trenches, the remaining defenders can focus more on defending the passing game.
Disrupting Falk's rhythm must involve making him feel pressure in the pocket but doing so will not be enough. If necessary, the Cougars will adjust to a short passing game using screens and rubs to create separation between the receivers and Husky defenders. To counter the short passing game, the Huskies need to mix the coverage schemes. Falk will have a hard time feeling comfortable finding rhythm with Husky defenders in his face while trying to decipher several different coverage schemes.
Who do you like to come away with the Apple Cup on Saturday?
Ryan: Washington comes into the 107th Apple Cup leading the Cougars 68-32-6, and having won four of the last five contests. The sole loss in the streak was the last game in Pullman and perhaps the most disheartening loss of Steve Sarkisian's tenure at UW, when the Huskies blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead en route to a 31-28 overtime loss that was Wazzu's sole Pac-12 win of the season.
The Cougars will be similarly upset-minded Saturday, as Washington is currently favored by 3.5 points in most Vegas lines. Washington State is eliminated from bowl consideration this season, so the Cougars will no doubt treat this as their bowl game and leave everything on the field.
Meanwhile, the Huskies will fight to keep the Apple Cup in Seattle for the second consecutive year, and for the chance to earn the program's second consecutive nine-win season. In other words, both teams have plenty of motivation to bring their A-games.
The key to the game will likely be the Washington pass rush vs. the Cougar offensive line. Much like last week's game against the Beavers, this matchup should tilt decisively in favor of Washington: The Huskies have racked up 44 sacks, second in the Pac-12, and the Cougs have allowed 32 sacks, 11th in the Pac-12.
Where the Cougars might find an advantage is in their passing game, as you might guess. Despite turning in mostly solid play in the secondary, the Huskies have shown themselves vulnerable to giving up at least a couple of big pass plays each game, and they face an opposing quarterback in Luke Falk who has thrown for nearly 1,100 yards in two starts to the tune of eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
Thanks to a prolific passing game, I expect the Cougars to make a game of this, and I expect the 3.5 point spread will be fairly representative of the game's final score. Nonetheless, I see the Huskies coming out ahead in this one. Washington 45, Washington State 41.
Alex: The temperature in Pullman and the attitude of the Cougar players will certainly be factors in the outcome of this game. Temperatures will be in the 20s and the Cougars are playing their last game of the season. By ignoring the weather's impact on the game and imposing their will early, the Huskies should come away with a blowout victory against a beleaguered Cougar squad.
Cyler Miles and the Husky offense must be careful with the football. The ball has found the turf far too many times already this season, and the Huskies are fortunate that they have recovered many of those fumbles. Turnovers are the only way the Cougars can stay in this game, so ball security is most essential this week.
On defense, I expect the Huskies to create chaos in the Cougar backfield and force several turnovers throughout the game. I expect the Huskies to play their best and most complete game in this regular season finale and create some momentum going into bowl game preparation.