This is the fifth 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 Illinois. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp, Hawaii (Week One), Hawaii (Week Two), Eastern Washington.
Alex: After surviving a scare with FBS juggernaut Eastern Washington, Chris Petersen suavely asked the media, "Well, did you like it?" I feel confident saying that Husky fans liked it as much as Pac-12 quarterbacks enjoy having Danny Shelton sit on them.
Sure, the offense was much better against Eastern Washington. The offensive line played much better as a unit. The Committee of Five—Lavon Coleman, Dwayne Washington, Jesse Callier, Deontae Cooper, and Shaq Thompson—benefitted from the offensive line's improved play. The Legion of Zoom continues to earn its nickname. Another beneficiary of the offensive line's improved play was Cyler Miles, who displayed poise in the pocket and athleticism outside of it, leading the Husky offense to 59 points. Unfortunately, a solid showing from the offense was overshadowed with an abysmal defensive performance.
I knew entering the season that the young secondary would face adversity—especially in the first few games. However, "adversity" is not a strong enough word to describe what the young secondary encountered last Saturday against Eastern Washington. The phrase "complete and utter failure" better encapsulates the encounter.
Against athletically inferior opponents, the Husky secondary was a few steps behind throughout the game. Despite coverage adjustments and personnel changes, the Husky secondary never managed to stop the Eastern Washington passing attack. Even Marcus Peters—who sat for a quarter after a terrible personal foul penalty that negated a third-down sack by Shaq Thompson—looked like a sophomoric junior.
For uneasy Husky fans—including myself—what do you think needs to change for the Husky secondary? Personnel? Schemes? Borrow the Legion of Boom for a game?
Ryan: You might be on to something. After all, Earl Thomas only played three seasons at Texas ... (A man is allowed to dream, right?)
Unfortunately, there will be no All-Pro reinforcements incoming to Washington's beleaguered secondary. For now, they are who they are; and at this point, who they are seems to be a group of talented youngsters who haven't come close to adjusting to the demands of the college game. It is safe to say that when Washington hired one of the most sought-after coaches in college football last December, no one predicted that in Petersen's home debut, the Eastern Washington Eagles would set a record for throwing the most touchdown passes against the Huskies in the history of the program.
And yet, I find myself strangely calm. I think my demeanor has to do with a couple of things that Coach Pete said in his Monday press conference about making sure that his young players get meaningful experience. Here's the first quote, about getting Dante Pettis looks as the punt returner:
"Both those guys are going to be factors. I want to make sure we are playing these true freshman and we get them on the field in important roles. I think Dante (Pettis) is going to be good back there and I want to keep developing him there and make sure he's doing something important. I think he can be a really good receiver and we have to get him some more reps at that position too during the game."
And here's what he had to say about getting Budda Baker reps at safety:
"I think he's progressing. I think he's learning something new every game. He plays hard - I have really good confidence he's going to stay focused because he's a very focused individual. He's going to stay after it and continue to get better and by the middle of the season he's going to play at a high level as a true freshman."
My takeaway here is that Petersen is willing to risk some slip-ups and inconsistent play in the season's early going if doing so pays off by producing battle-tested players by the start of conference play. After all, doesn't it make more sense to put Sidney Jones, Naijiel Hale, Darren Gardenhire and Budda Baker through the crucible in wins against Eastern Washington and Hawii than it does to wait until the Dawgs take on national powerhouses in Stanford and Oregon? Given his 94-12 career record, I'm going to give Coach Pete the benefit of assuming that he's crazy like a fox, and wait for him to prove me wrong.
The offense certainly looked up for the task, and Husky fans have to be thrilled by the fact that in the two games he has started, Cyler Miles has orchestrated an attack that has yielded 67 and 59 points, respectively. Do you think that last weekend's offensive prowess was an illusion facilitated by facing an FCS defense, or does Washington have a legitimate chance to field one of the Pac-12's most potent offenses this year?
Alex: Good question. The offense—especially the ground game—performed consistently throughout the game. Without a prolific offensive performance, the Huskies would have become yet another victim of the FCS "juggernauts". While I was encouraged by the rushing game, I still have questions about the offense's passing attack.
Nowhere is the difference between FCS and FBS division greater than on the offensive and defensive lines. The Husky offensive line bullied the undersized Eastern Washington defensive line—as they should. Quarterback Cyler Miles and the Committee of Five exploited the opportunities created by the offensive line en route to 356 yards (6.2 yards a carry) and seven touchdowns. While it seems unlikely that the Huskies will be as effective running the ball against some defenses in the Pac-12, this performance should build confidence for the offense.
Cyler Miles provides the offense with an element—his legs—that the program has lacked since Jake Locker's departure. Miles' ability to run the ball may not equal Locker's ability; however, his skill far exceeds that of Keith Price. That being said, though Miles may have more talent running the ball, he has a long way to go to match Price's passing prowess.
Based on a small sample size, Miles seems to lack the arm strength of his predecessors. Arm strength can be overrated—Joe Montana never had elite arm strength, and he's on the short-list of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. What a lack of arm strength means is that the quarterback needs to release the ball with anticipation for where the receiver will be in his route. A quarterback who lacks arm strength, but is well versed in an offense and has made countless repetitions of throwing to his receivers, can be very successful. Unfortunately, due to the coaching change and his suspension, Miles is still learning the Huskies' new offense.
Miles' athleticism and competitive nature allowed him to be successful in the passing game against Eastern Washington; however, he may have more trouble against better competition in the Pac-12. For the most part, Miles delivered the ball to his receivers via screens and the short passing game. The Husky offense found success with both strategies—John Ross scored a long touchdown on a bubble screen, and Kasen Williams successfully completed a two-point conversion by executing a short fade route. Those routes may be successful against Eastern Washington, but to be successful long-term, the Huskies will need to develop the passing game as to stretch the field vertically. I expect to see the Dawgs take more shots on intermediate and deep routes this week.
I think that's enough about offense. Let's turn to the defense. Do you think Danny Shelton and Shaq Thompson can continue to produce at a similar clip during the remainder of the season? Do you agree with Petersen's decision to suspend Marcus Peters?
Ryan: In regard to your first question, there's zero chance that Shelton continues to pile up stats—through two games, he's notched 24 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 6.0 sacks—the way that he has thus far. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Shelton's primary role as a nose guard, after all, is to clog running lanes and collapse the pocket so that the other members of the front seven can control the line of scrimmage and rack up stats. His otherworldly production so far—seriously, when is the last time that a 339 lb. nose tackle led the nation in sacks after two weeks?—speaks to two things: Shelton's prodigious skill, and the fact that those stats come against teams from the Mountain West and Big Sky conferences.
Shaq Thompson, on the other hand, has plenty of room to grow. It's pretty apparent after two games that Shaq, much like the rest of the team, has yet to fully learn Coach K's schemes and philosophies. Thompson has raw physical talent unlike almost any other player to ever come through Montlake, but at this point, he certainly seems like he could use an additional year to improve his draft stock.
And that brings us to door No. 3: Marcus Peters. We don't know the exact specifics of what led to Peters' suspension—whether it was his reaction to the personal foul penalty he incurred Saturday, something he said to the coaches on the sideline when he was visibly furious, or some combination of these and/or other factors—but you'd be hard-pressed to argue that Coach Pete has made a more impactful personnel decision since taking over the program. After all, this isn't remotely similar to removing a true freshman like Lavon Washington or a sophomore like Marcus Farria from the team. Peters is an All American candidate and a potential first-round draft pick, in addition to being by far the most talented and experienced player in the secondary. By holding him out of the Illinois game, Chris Petersen is making his strongest statement yet that no one player is bigger than the program, and that he has the stones to back that policy up with action. And as to whether or not I agree with his decision to suspend Peters? I'll wait until roughly 4 p.m. on Saturday to let you know.
Alright, that's enough chatter. What's your prediction for tomorrow's game?
Alex: Much of the conversation following the Eastern Washington game centered on the secondary's inability to make plays on the ball. I expect the Husky coaching staff to play more zone coverage and mix in more blitzes to help out the secondary. No matter what the coaches and the rest of the defense does differently in this game, the Husky secondary needs to make plays on the ball. Without making plays on the ball, the Husky secondary will be exposed by Illini quarterback Wes Lunt in the same way they were against Vernon Adams Jr.
On the other side of the ball, the Illini will be ready to defend the Husky rushing game. Though I expect the Huskies to build on their success running the ball, I also expect some adjustments and different looks on offense. Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith should integrate more intermediate and deep routes in the game plan to stretch the field. Cyler Miles—in his second start of the season—will continue to build confidence and efficiency in the passing game.
With a more dynamic game plan on defense to help the young and depleted secondary along with a multifarious attack on offense, the Huskies should win another shootout.
I'll call it Washington Huskies 42, Illinois Fighting Illini 31.
Ryan: Last week, Washington fans got their first glimpse of what a Cyler Miles-led offense in 2014 might look like, and most liked what they saw. After all, it's hard to find too much fault in a performance that yields 536 total yards, including 356 on the ground, and eight total touchdowns. And while Illinois figures to put up a better fight on the defensive side of the ball than FCS Eastern Washington, they are hardly world-beaters: So far this year, the Illini have had to stage fourth-quarter comebacks against FCS Youngstown State and Western Kentucky.
Where this game figures to hinge, then, is on the performance of Washington's defense. Through two games, Wes Lunt has completed 67 percent of his passes at 8.4 yards per attempt and seven touchdowns against just one interception, giving him a phenomenal quarterback rating of 161.76. (For comparison, Keith Price earned a 153.25 rating last year after completing 66 percent of his passes at 8.4 yards per attempt for 21 touchdowns and six picks.) However, Lunt is not particularly mobile, and the news that starting right tackle Pat Flavin will miss this weekend's game due to injury could open up the floodgates for Hau'oli Kikaha to have a big day, as long as he's not again inexplicably assigned to cover the slot like he was last week.
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.