This is the 13th 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 UCLA. 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.
Alex: After an imperfect yet complete game on Saturday, the Huskies departed Boulder with a victory. Despite a lackluster start and multiple turnovers, the Huskies managed to win in all three phases and consequently come away with a Pac-12 road win.
Falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter usually spells disaster against the Pac-12 elite—fortunately for the Huskies, the Colorado Buffalos don't quite fit that description. Shaq "Touchdown" Thompson singlehandedly carried the Husky offense through the first half, and the defense stepped up in the third quarter by creating turnovers and turning one into a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Dante Pettis put the game on ice with the first punt return for a touchdown by a Husky since Charles Frederick did so against Oregon State in 2003. While the defense and special teams contributed to the victory, the Huskies don't win this game without the contributions of "Touchdown" Thompson on offense.
Thompson is the most versatile player in college football, and maybe even the best player period. As Chris Petersen alluded on Saturday, Thompson could legitimately play several positions—running back, receiver, linebacker, safety and kick returner—at an All-American level. In the pass-happy world of college football today, quarterbacks are usually identified as the best—as evidenced by the recent Heisman Trophy winners. However, the case could certainly be made for Thompson as the best player.
Whichever side of the ball he's played this season, Thompson has produced: turnovers, tackles, and touchdowns on defense; rushing yards, receiving yards, and touchdowns on offense. No matter how they use him, Thompson finds a way to have an impact on the outcome of every contest. In their remaining games, Washington's coaching staff will need to decide where he can make the biggest impact.
Do you expect Shaq Thompson to continue playing running back full-time for the season's remainder?
Ryan: After the talent that he's flashed this season, I don't know how you could justify taking Shaq away from the offense. The swiftness in which he has become the offense's focal point speaks to two things: his sheer athletic ability, and the near-dearth of anyone else resembling a go-to player.
On defense, Shaq is likely the most gifted player on a unit that already boasts an embarrassment of riches. In addition to Thompson, the Husky defense features Danny Shelton occupying two or three offensive linemen on almost every play, and Hau'oli Kikaha making meals of quarterbacks (go figure that on his quietest day of the year, he breaks Washington's single-season sack record).
In other words, when you take away Shaq from defense, there are two other potential first-day draft choices to shoulder the weight of his absence—not to mention talented young linebackers like Keishawn Bierria to fill in for him. On offense, though, no other such players exist, which makes Thompson's star shine all the more brightly when he takes the field.
In each of the five seasons from 2009 to 2013, Washington had at least one "it" player who could seemingly take command of the offense at any time. Jake Locker, Chris Polk, Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar, Bishop Sankey, Keith Price, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Kasen Williams—no matter the situation, UW always seemed to be able to call upon at least one player who could be counted on to make the big play.
Perhaps more than anything else, the offense of Chris Petersen's debut year has been marked by the lack of any such player. Star players make big plays in key situations, and the players that we expected (or merely hoped) to do so in 2014—Williams, Cyler Miles, Lavon Coleman, Jaydon Mickens—simply haven't done so. John Ross is the one player who has shown himself to be such a threat, and for whatever reason, he didn't touch the ball a single time on offense against the Buffs.
When Shaq totes the rock, though, he immediately provides that next-level type of athletic ability that the offense has so clearly lacked this season. Husky fans will no doubt spend the offseason wondering what the outcomes of the Stanford and Arizona State games might have been if Coach Pete had decided to commit to the Shaq experiment a few weeks earlier than he did.
You asked me above if I expected Shaq to remain at running back for the rest of the year? I'll take it a step further and say that at this point, it would be coaching malpractice to move him back to linebacker. The offense really needs his help that badly.
I think about 750 words between the two of us on Touchdown Thompson is enough praise, though. How about some love for Pettis? Did we just see his breakout game as Washington's next star receiver?
Alex: Dante Pettis has been solid throughout the season, but he took his game to another level during the game against the Buffs. Before scoring the game-clinching touchdown on the punt return, Pettis scored his first career touchdown on pass from Cyler Miles in the third quarter. Similar to the other true freshman who have seen significant playing time—most notably, Budda Baker and Sidney Jones but also Will Dissly and Naijiel Hale—Pettis' confidence in his abilities has allowed him to contribute right away.
While I love to see freshman contribute early, I'm a little concerned about the impact on the other veteran players and how they view the situation. Jaydon Mickens, John Ross III and Kasen Williams are not the type of guys who will complain—at least publicly—about their roles. However, I have to wonder how they feel about a freshman receiving so much playing time-especially one who was recruited by Petersen and has a longer history with him than any of them.
Obviously, there's nothing wrong with Pettis becoming a regular contributor on offense; however, Petersen and his staff need to get more guys involved than the two-man show of Pettis and Thompson. Mickens, Ross, and Williams have made big plays in the past, but they won't be able to do so if they're not targeted. Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith has no problem giving the ball to Shaq even when the whole stadium knows it is going to happen—why not find more ways for Mickens, Ross, and Williams to get the ball, too? Why aren't the Huskies trying to isolate Williams in the red zone and let him use his body and leaping ability to catch the ball? I'm sure this will come as big surprise to readers and you Ryan, but I'm not buying Smith's excuses.
Besides trying to spread the ball around on offense, what do you see as key for the Huskies to come away with an upset at home against UCLA?
Ryan: That's simple—the Huskies need to decisively win the turnover battle, and apply constant pressure to Brett Hundley. Accomplish both of those goals, and UW's chances winning its first Pac-12 home game of the year and knocking off their its first ranked opponent increase dramatically.
This year, Washington's defense has proved to be one of the most opportunistic in the nation at creating turnovers, ranking 12th in the nation in creating turnovers (20) and seventh in turnover margin (plus-11). They've been particularly effective in Seattle, creating 13 turnovers while losing just four for a turnover margin of plus-nine that ranks third in the nation. They come into Saturday's game after posting a minus-four margin in October, and the Huskies will need to extend that streak of bad luck for the Bruins in order to limit their offensive chances.
The other key matchup will be that of Hau'oli Kikaha against UCLA's offensive line, which is one of the worst in the nation at protecting the quarterback. After he had a relatively quiet day against a sting Colorado offensive line, this week's matchup against the Bruins seems tailor-made for a national defensive player of the week-type of performance from Kikaha. Through nine games, UCLA has surrendered 29.0 sacks, equivalent to 3.22 sacks per game—both figures ranking dead last in the conference. (From a national perspective, they check in at Nos. 119 and 117 out of 127 teams, respectively.) This isn't just a 2014 problem, either: In his career, Brett Hundley has been sacked an unreal 115 times. UCLA has shown improvement of late, giving up just one sack in their last two games against Colorado and Cal, but neither the Bruins nor the Golden Bears have a front seven that can challenge opposing QBs like Washington's can.
If Washington can keep the UCLA offense from getting into a rhythm by forcing a few costly turnovers and pressure Brett Hundley while not allowing him to break containment on his scrambles, the Dawgs have a fantastic chance of pulling the upset.
Prediction time! Who do you like to come out of Saturday's game victorious?
Alex: Two opportunities—potentially three, if you count a bowl game—remain for the Huskies to beat a ranked opponent. Besides beating a ranked opponent, the Huskies can also become bowl-eligible with a win against the Bruins. Playing at home will certainly help the Huskies, but no amount of crowd noise can make up for a lack of offense. Unlike the game against Arizona State, the Huskies and Bruins will not be contending with hurricane conditions on the field.
Nothing about the Bruin offense leads me to believe that Shaq Thompson will be less productive against them. Thompson probably won't average more than ten yards per carry like he did last week, but the Huskies don't need him to do so. If Thompson can average four yards a carry and—more importantly—draw the attention of Bruin defenders, then Cyler Miles should have an easier time throwing the ball off play-action.
Brett Hundley and the Bruin offense will be a formidable challenge for the Husky defense—especially for the secondary. Marcus Peters' dismissal ups the ante on the challenge facing the secondary. John Ross III's move to the secondary should mitigate the challenge but that alone will not be enough. Fortunately for the Huskies, the biggest weakness for the Bruins is their offensive line. Kikaha, Shelton, and the Hudsons should take full advantage of the Bruin offensive line. Putting pressure on Hundley won't be a challenge for the Huskies; keeping him in the pocket and tackling him in space will be. If Thompson plays the majority of his snaps on offense, then I expect Budda Baker to be a key in helping contain Hundley in the run game. Washington Huskies 31, UCLA Bruins 28.
Ryan: There's not much for me to disagree with in your prediction, though I'd also single out Corey Littleton and Travis Feeney as guys who are going to need to play extremely well in space to limit Hundley when he inevitably puts his legs to use.
Last year's game against UCLA was marked by the emergence of Damore'ea Stringfellow, who had a monster performance in Washington's losing effort against the Bruins. Unfortunately, it wasn't a sign of things to come for the receiver on the shores of Montlake, who departed the program shortly after Chris Petersen's hiring for reasons that I'm sure we don't need to rehash here. While another such offensive breakout is unlikely, it wouldn't be surprising to see Dante Pettis build on the breakout game he had last week against Colorado by putting in another solid effort. Assuming Shaq gets the bulk of the team's carries, Cyler should have opportunities to make throws in the short and intermediate passing game. This offense isn't going to hang 45 on the Bruins, but should play well enough at home to keep things close.
On the defensive side of the ball, the secondary is going to have to fill some large shoes in a hurry after today's unexpected dismissal of Marcus Peters. There's no denying the negative impact that his absence will have on the defense—you don't go from starting a potential first-round pick to a true freshman without encountering some bumps in the road—and there's good reason to think that Brett Hundley and Jordan Payton will be the primary beneficiaries of that. More than ever before, the Huskies are going to need its front seven to create a strong pass rush to help mask the drop in talent that Washington will grapple with for the rest of the season.
The Huskies have the talent to keep this one competitive against a UCLA team that has struggled to play consistently the entire season, but I don't think it will be enough to overcome the matchup between one of the league's best quarterbacks and a secondary that will start three true freshmen out of four positions. Washington 27, UCLA 38.