This is the sixth 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 Georgia State. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp, Hawaii (Week One), Hawaii (Week Two), Eastern Washington, Illinois.
Ryan: Finally, we saw the Huskies we've been waiting for.
I'm not completely sure when it happened. Most likely, it was when Shaq Thompson picked up the first of his two touchdowns by marching a first-quarter Wes Lunt interception to the house: That play launched the crowd into a fever pitch, and increased Washington's lead to 18 points when it had been four points just 1:23 earlier. The point is that somewhere along the way, Washington began to play relaxed. And, oh boy, this team—especially the defense—is capital-g-Good when playing fast and loose.
Of course, not everything was roses and sunshine on Montlake. Travell Dixon likely had the toughest day of anyone on the field, after getting burned a couple of times and committing a costly third-down pass interference in the second quarter. On the other hand, true freshman cornerback Sidney Jones had what we might look back on as his breakout game after turning in a solid effort; in the wake of Jermaine Kelly's season-ending ankle injury, he's now listed as the starting cornerback opposite Marcus Peters, who is back from serving a one-game suspension.
But there's no question that this was the most complete game that the Huskies have played under Chris Petersen. The offense rang up 24 points in the first half before going into cruise control in the second half, John Ross was thisclose to breaking off another kick return for a touchdown, Dante Pettis showed some explosiveness in the punt return game, and outside of a few mental miscues in the secondary, and the defense prevented Wes Lunt and the Illini from ever getting into a rhythm and threatening Washington's lead. It's about as good of a performance as could be hoped for, and leaves the Dawgs in an advantageous position with one more tune-up game against Georgia State before taking on Stanford in a key Pac-12 North matchup.
What did you think of Washington's first comfortable win of 2014?
Alex: The Huskies played their most complete game—but that's not really saying much considering previous performances this season. Progress is progress, though.
To continue progressing, the Huskies need to develop a more distinct offensive identity. Part of the problem—if you can even call it a problem—is the abundance of playmakers. Each member in the Committee of Five has proven, given the opportunity, they can and will produce. The receivers are no different. So what's the problem?
Without a clear offensive identity, the Huskies will struggle in Pac-12 play. The Huskies need defined player roles and production expectations. If it's third-and-one, who gets the carry? If it's third-and-ten, who gets the ball? If we're in the red zone, what's the play-calling strategy? Last year those questions could be answered—third-and-one, Bishop Sankey; third-and-ten, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kevin Smith; red zone, Sankey and Seferian-Jenkins.
But having more options is better, right? Wrong. Too many options and too many strategies lead to offensive schizophrenia. To find consistent and lasting success during Pac-12 play, the Huskies need an identity. The great teams know the answer to those questions, and their players can execute in those situations because they know their roles. Besides winning in blowout, I expect the Huskies to further develop an offensive identity.
What else, besides developing an offensive identify, do you think is important for the Huskies this week?
Ryan: Honestly, Saturday's game against Georgia State, a school that was without a football program until 2010 and moved to the FBS level in 2012, represents my biggest dislike of what modern college football has become. The Huskies are expected to beat up on the Panthers in a way that leaves no doubt about the game's outcome from the opening kickoff; fail to cover the outrageous 36.5-point spread, and suddenly we're subjected to inane talk about how the Huskies underwhelmed because they didn't cover the five-touchdown spread. It's the definition of a lose/lose proposition.
If there's anything positive to take away from this weekend's contest, it's that it will provide the young secondary another live-fire exercise before the conference schedule kicks off the following week against Stanford. While it seems as if most of the experimentation and reshuffling on that side of the ball has been completed, Jermaine Kelly's injury leaves one of the starting roles open for business. Saturday's competition against the Panthers will be the final dress rehearsal in advance of conference play, and Sidney Jones and Najiel Hale will both have opportunities to prove themselves worthy of the starting job.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Huskies need to take advantage of a soft opponent to get Cyler Miles into a rhythm with his receivers in the intermediate passing game. Aside from a pair of bombs to John Ross in the Eastern Washington and Illinois games, offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith hasn't called for his quarterback to attempt many passes that take more than a two or three seconds for their routes to develop. Saturday will provide a great chance for the Dawgs to work these types of plays into their repertoire, and hopefully find ways to get a still-recovering Kasen Williams to feel good about his performance.
Since getting to 4-0 ought to be a foregone conclusion, what can the Huskies accomplish that will be helpful for them as they enter Pac-12 play?
Alex: Aside from winning, the Huskies need to provide the backups with meaningful playing time. That will only occur if the Huskies score early and often, and keep Georgia Sate from doing the same. If all goes to plan—which it never does, but humor me—the Huskies will up big by halftime and the coaches will play the junior varsity down the stretch.
As the Huskies have already experienced this season—due to Cyler Miles and Marcus Peters' suspensions, and Jermaine Kelly's season-ending injury—a team may only be as good as their depth. In rare cases, a football team can play the entire season without any significant injury or suspension. In most cases, a team will deal with at least one significant injury or suspension. In any case, a team needs to prepare all its players for potential meaningful minutes.
No amount of practice repetitions can adequately prepare a player for a game; only game repetitions can do that. Even against lowly Georgia State, the Huskies can continue the process of becoming a complete team. By preparing backups to play in future games—Pac-12 games for that matter—the Huskies will be preparing for the inevitability of future personnel challenges.
Not only is playing time essential for preparing backups for this season, but also for future seasons. Cyler Miles, Colin Tanigawa, Jaydon Mickens, Shaq Thompson, Danny Shelton and others will be gone someday. If the Huskies can give meaningful minutes—in the course of winning the game—to the young guys who will eventually replace the current starters, those young players will be better off for it in the future.
How do you see tomorrow's game shaking out?
Ryan: Predicting a score for this game seems to be an exercise in sadomasochism. Georgia State, as has been well documented, has never beaten an FBS team, and after witnessing the demolition derby that the Dawgs put on against Illinois last weekend, it's difficult to think that the Panthers' ignominious streak will come to an end on the shores of Montlake.
More important than the score, then, will be three things: 1) Washington's ability to provide its second- and third-string players with valuable game experience, 2) solidifying the defensive secondary's starters heading into next week, and 3) coming away from the game with no major injuries.
Considering the offense's potency under Cyler Miles, there's no reason to think that objective No. 1 won't be accomplished by halftime. No. 2 is much more of a wildcard: Does Travell Dixon make up for his bad day and regain Jimmy Lakes' trust, or does Sidney Jones make another move toward locking down the starting role opposite Marcus Peters for the rest of the year? As for No. 3, well, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best.
Trying to accurately pick out a potential score for this game feels like an exercise in futility—if I were a gambler, I'd stay far, far away from this matchup. But since I have nothing on the line other than my pride, I'll call it Washington 56, Georgia State 13.
Alex: A dominating physical performance should set the stage for a showdown with Stanford. But there's no time to dwell on a future game—the most important game is always the next one.
Success in this week's game will be measured not by the score or outcome—since anything less than a blowout victory will be a disappointment—but by victory's course. The Huskies need to put together a complete game in which they dominate their opponent on defense, offense, and special teams.
Domination on defense means creating sacks and practicing sound tackling techniques that lead to turnovers and three-and-outs. Domination on offense means controlling the line of scrimmage, consistently running the ball, and producing explosive plays. Domination on special teams means creating tight coverage on kickoffs and punts, achieving perfection in the kicking game, and creating long returns when receiving the ball.
More than putting up a big point total, the Huskies need to be dominant. I expect nothing less than a dominant performance.