After another close call last week there's been a lot of teeth-gnashing over the performance of the Huskies so far (and in particular about the defense). Some contend that the coaching staff is playing possum, others point out that they are still in teaching mode and haven't fully rolled out the playbook. Some note that a few fluke plays and ill-timed penalties kept EWU in the game, and that some of Vernon Adams' TD passes were picture-perfect and nearly impossible to defend. Whatever the case may be, the Dawgs have two more non-conference games to work out the kinks before the most important portion of the season kicks in. Next up - a return visit from the Illinois Fighting Illini after the Huskies traveled to Chicago last year to play them in Soldier Field, a somewhat ragged win by the Huskies by the score of 34-24.
The Illini bring with them highly regarded QB Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State who had to sit out last year. A tall pocket passer, Lunt was good enough as a true frosh to start for the Cowboys, playing in 7 games and starting 5 before injuries ended his season. While his performance was decent as a 1st year player, he's been terrific through his first two games with Illinois, boasting a 161.8 passer rating while throwing for 370.5 ypg and 7 TD's, and completing 67.0% of his passes. Facing a secondary that was torched by Adams last week - and is without suspended starting CB Marcus Peters - this is clearly a match-up that Illinois will look to exploit. Given the meager rushing numbers from the Illini so far, it would appear that as Lunt goes, so goes their offense. Unlike Adams, Lunt is not a particularly mobile QB, so the Husky front four will look to get pressure on him to take Lunt out of his comfort zone. It's worth noting though that they've only surrendered 2 sacks so far this season, though they were somewhat vulnerable last year.
On defense, the Illini hope they've improved over last year's poor showing (112th in total defense, 102nd FEI, 103rd S&P). They've done just OK so far this year, and against questionable competition (similar to what the Huskies have faced). WKU RB Leon Allen picked up 118 yards on 24 carries, suggesting that the Husky run game could find success. WKU QB Brandon Doughty was moderately effective, picking up 297 yards in the air but needed 48 attempts to get there with no gain going longer than 21 yards.
With one game under his belt this year, I expect QB Cyler Miles will look a little less rusty. He was effective last week, but rarely took shots downfield and often relied on his feet to make something happen. Coach Petersen has hinted this week he thinks Cyler bailed a little too early on a few passing plays, so it will be interesting to see if he shows more patience in the pocket. I would expect he'll do a lot of handing off in this one similar to last week - the Illinois run defense doesn't like it could be exploited. The Husky defense - and particularly the young secondary - will get another significant test this week, and the hope is they have learned from the lumps they took last week and show improvement. They'll need to as they have to cover for the absence of Peters. I expect the UW pass rush to be amped up and hope to see Hau'oli Kikaha fully unleashed to harass Lunt.
Perhaps I'm drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but I think we'll see a stronger showing from the defense as they digest what the coaches are teaching them. They'll need to, because while I think the offense will find success against Illinois, I don't think it will be to the tune of 59 points. I see this one being a fairly tight game, but with fewer mistakes and a small step forward for the defense I think Washington wins this one by a couple scores: UW 41, Illinois 31
When a football team ... your football team ... is 2-0 and your new starting QB is coming off a game where he just led the team to a 50 point outburst, the feeling you are supposed to feel is some sort of mixture between elation and pride. But, if you are a Husky fan, you are feeling something different. It isn't the same as what it must feel like to be a Cuog right now, but it is a feeling that combines anxiety with confusion and concern.
Not good. In fact, Beavis says it best:
The good news is that most analysts agree that the kinds of lapses and underperformance that we've seen from the Huskies in two weeks can be attributed to either a limited playbook or to fixable errors in execution. I've yet to see anybody actually attribute anything to a talent gap in any given area. This fact matches my own assessment of the team and gives me confidence heading into Week 3 and Illinois.
I like the Huskies to "click" in this one. On the offensive side, I expect that we'll continue to see more choppiness in both the running and passing games and the coaching staff continues to tinker with playbook expansion. However, there are big plays out there to be had against an inconsistent Illinois offense and, as we saw last week, it looks like Cyler Miles is programmed to get the ball into the hands of those guys that can uncork the defense. I'm talking about Jaydon Mickens and John Ross. Look for the Huskies to get more aggressive in the passing game and the offensive line to assert themselves in pass protection.
Defensively, we may be in for a long day with Illinois converting first downs and moving the ball. However, if we've learned anything it is that the Chris Petersen is not going to lose the turnover margin war if he can help it. Illinois plays a high-risk style of football and I expect that the Huskies will generate a couple of turnovers including their first interception of the season. A pick six may not be out of the question.
We'll again take the Huskies. Let's put it at UW 45 - Illinois 33.
I like UW to win the game, but after the secondary's implosion last week against Eastern Washington, I'm not nearly as confident that the Dawgs will pull this one out as I was in the preseason. Washington has the talent and home field advantages; whether it's a two-point or 21-point win hinges on the secondary's ability to make up for the loss of Peters against a prolific passing attack. Washington 48, Illinois 41
The Huskies will pull it together and play their most complete defensive game so far this season. Shaq Thompson will not carry the ball on offense, Coleman will go over a hundred yards, and Washington will go over 50. The Dawgs will continue to run effectively. Kasen Williams will have five catches, averaging twelve yards each. No sacks by Danny Shelton, as an actual offensive line forces the Huskies to get their pressure from the edge and with blitzes. A very compromised defensive backfield gives up 300 yards through the air, but looks better than pessimists expected. llinois will have 24 points or fewer. Budda Baker gets his first pick. The OL improves, but leaves room for further improvement. Cyler Miles gives up a turnover early, having a bit of trouble adjusting to a Big "10" defense (such as it is). The Husky D continues to befuddle fans by putting Kikaha over the slot. He does a fine job, but leaves us wondering what would have happened if he'd been rushing the passer instead. The Huskies blitz on one-third of passing downs, and rush three on half. UW 31-24. Two and a half stars, Joe Bob says check it out.
It's really tough to have expectations for this team right now. The safest prediction is that your best bet is just to sit back and watch what happens.
That being said, the Illini are a team that the Huskies should be able to beat playing the same mostly vanilla approach we've seen the last two weeks. Defensively, they're still less than mediocre. The Huskies should be able to run the ball effectively all game. Having Ben Riva back at right tackle at closer to 100% and with a little less rust should help in that regard. It'll be interesting to see if Lavon Coleman's efforts last week lead to him receiving the lion's share of the carries this week, or if Chris Petersen and Jonathon Smith continue to rotate series between the backs as they largely have the first two games. Even though he lacks home run speed, he's the most complete runner at this point. If he gets 18 or more carries, he should eclipse 100 yards for the second straight week. Should Dwayne Washington get that number of carries, he easily could as well. Both of those guys (as well as Shaq Thompson, for that matter) are showing to be more effective running down hill as opposed to the zone scheme that relies on the cut back.
Cyler Miles should continue to be a major asset in the running game, but the questions with him are 1. Will he asked to throw the ball down the field more, and 2. Will he be successful? My guess is that the Huskies will continue to play safe in the passing game, but might look a little harder to take a shot or two down the field this week. The intermediate passing game will mostly stay on the shelf for another week.
Defensively, the Huskies showed faint signs of life late in the game against Eastern when Cory Littleton was inserted into the lineup as the buck linebacker/rush end, and Hau'oli Kikaha played more as a true defensive end with his hand on the ground. It didn't amount to much, but the Huskies were generating better pressure out of a base package (without blitzing) than they were earlier in the game. Hopefully, we see more of the same, and Kikaha's time in coverage is limited. Illinois has a very dangerous passing attack (against weak competition so far), and if the Huskies choose to both not pressure the QB and not cover receivers as they often did against Eastern, the Illini should be able to move the ball. The question will be whether drives turn in to TD's or field goals.
All of the members of the secondary spent a considerable amount of time getting beat last week, but by the end of the game, it looked like the coaches were most comfortable with Travell Dixon and Sidney Jones at cornerback. Jermaine Kelly received little if any playing time in the fourth quarter. Marcus Peters is suspended, but was still listed as the starter at one cornerback on the official release from the University of Washington. My guess is that the Huskies start Dixon, who was probably playing better than Peters even before he was benched, and Jones at corner. That means the Huskies will start two true freshmen (at least) in the secondary.
In another way-too-close for comfort game, I see the Huskies making just enough stops in the flurry of passing offense they allow, and a dominant running game coupled with an efficient but unspectacular passing game putting up enough points to make it stand. Huskies 44, Illinois 34