This is the seventh 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, Georgia State.
Alex: In the imaginary category known as unimpressive wins, the Huskies are leading the nation. After yet another less than impressive victory against Georgia State, the panic is palpable within the ranks of Husky fans and the Seattle media. While concerns about this team are warranted, I'm not buying the panic narrative—yet.
The Huskies' performances this season—with the exception of the Illinois game—have been uneven and unimpressive. Against Hawaii, the defense played well while the offense struggled. Against Eastern Washington, the offense played well while the defense struggled. Against Georgia State, both the offense and defense struggled in the first half but dominated in the second half. Inconsistency has been the only consistency this season for the Huskies.
On a defense with four players projected as first- or second-round draft picks in April's NFL Draft, the Huskies have struggled to stop opposing offenses. On an offense possessing a proliferation of playmakers and a veteran offensive line, the Huskies have struggled to move the ball. Both units are much improved since the beginning of the season, but they continue to be inconsistent. While it's understandable that Husky fans and the Seattle media would be frustrated by these inconsistencies, both need to be patient with this team. Instead of buying into the panic narrative, here's another way to look at the season.
A new coaching staff has directed—through both ups and downs in games away from and at Husky Stadium—a talented but young football team to four straight wins to start the season. Both the offense and defense have shown flashes of dominance. Neither has been dominant for an entire game; however, the capacity for dominance on both sides of the ball exists. While concerns may abound for the offense and defense, the special teams unit has been a real strength for this team. Besides one missed extra point by Cameron Van Winkle and a questionable block in the back penalty during a kick return, the special teams units have been almost flawless.
No team in America is a finished product at this point in the season; the Huskies are no different. With Petersen at the helm, I expect to see more consistency as the season progresses.
What's your take on the Georgia State game and the season thus far?
Ryan: The most sweeping conclusion that I drew from the almost-debacle against Georgia State is this: Never, ever take anything for granted in the first year of a coaching regime.
Through the first month of play, it's become clear that it doesn't matter that the Dawgs boast one of the nation's most decorated coaches at the head of a team that won nine games in 2013. It doesn't matter that Washington's non-conference schedule was softer than Charmin toilet paper. And it certainly doesn't matter that Washington's players on the lines of scrimmage are laden with seniors, and that the defensive side of the ball boasts two players in Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikaha who are legitimately playing like All Americans. In 2014, nothing about this team is going to be certain.
The Huskies faced an FCS team, and gave up the most touchdown passes in the history of the program. A week later, they play a prolific passing team in Illinois without their two starting cornerbacks and hold the quarterback to 16 completions for 230 yards. Following that, they play Georgia State, perhaps the worst team in major college football—a team that has never beaten an FBS opponent—and head into the locker room at halftime down 14–0.
It's early in the season, yes, but at some point along the way, a team adopts a persona. And right now, the only thing we know to expect about this team, is that we have no idea what to expect. Against Stanford, they could dominate the line of scrimmage and roll to a 28-10 point victory, or they could be completely stymied on offense and lose 35-7. Neither result would shock me.
What's more, in my heart of hearts, I don't think either result would shock Chris Petersen, either. The good news is that Washington hired one of the undisputed best coaches in the game; the bad news is that until he truly makes the program his own, there's every reason to believe that this kind of dysfunction will be par for the course.
Alex: Saturday's game against the Cardinal will be a good first test for Huskies. Though Stanford has won back-to-back Pac-12 championships, Washington has matched up well against them in the past few years. Two years ago on a Thursday night in Seattle, the Huskies' offense made a few timely explosive plays and the defense dominated the Cardinal offense leading to Josh Nunes' demise as quarterback and an upset victory for the Huskies. Last year on the Farm, the Huskies dominated the Cardinal on both sides of the ball but failed to come away with the victory due to several lapses on special teams.
Last year's game included many Huskies—Keith Price, Kevin Smith, Bishop Sankey, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Sean Parker—who had played a lot of college football. Though the Huskies have a lot of game experience in its defensive front seven and its offensive line, there are a few positions—most notably in the secondary but also to a lesser extent in the offensive backfield—where players will be playing their first "big" college football game.
Fortunately for the Dawgs, the game will be played in the friendly confines of Husky Stadium. David Shaw will try and prepare his team for the crowd noise. No matter what he does to prepare them for the noise, it will pale in comparison to reality—especially if the Huskies can manage to start fast. A fast start would go a long way to keeping the Husky fans in the game.
No matter how the game starts, it will be key that the Huskies maintain contact with the Cardinal. If the Cardinal builds a two-touchdown or greater lead, it will be tough—if not impossible—for the Huskies to recover and win. In a contest against a heavyweight, the Huskies will need to match the Cardinal punch for punch.
What else—besides a fast start and maintaining contact—is key for the Huskies to pull the upset?
Ryan: I think you hit the nail on the head in pointing out the need for Washington to get off to fast start. Ever since Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh and began the Cardinal's stunning turnaround from doormat to national power, Stanford has been a team that controls the tempo of a game by running the ball four to six yards at a time, all while steadily converting third downs and chewing up as much clock as humanly possible. This facet of their game is a double-edged sword—it makes Stanford absolutely deadly when protecting a lead, but also leaves the team susceptible to two-minute-drill situations when the team needs to score in a hurry. The Huskies need to take advantage of the benefits that come with playing on their own turf and create an early lead, since I simply have no faith in their ability to stage a big comeback against a top-20 opponent based on what we've seen from them so far this year.
The other aspect of their game that Washington needs to lock down is their special teams play. As I imagine anyone reading this already knows, UW beat Stanford soundly on offense and defense in last year's game at Palo Alto, but was absolutely torched in the kick return game. Limiting Ty Montgomery in particular from making the kinds of returns he did last year and giving the Cardinal unfavorable field position will go a long way toward keeping this game competitive.
I've saved the final point not so much for UW as I did for Cyler Miles. If Washington is to have a chance to come away with a win, at some point on Saturday Miles needs to show an ability to throw the ball to his receivers 15 to 20 yards down the field. The Dawgs have survived so far on short passes and screens, with the occasional deep shot to John Ross to keep defenses honest. That's gotten them to 4-0 against a series of weak non-conference opponents, but against a talented defense like Stanford's, I doubt they'll find much success. Put it this way: If Kasen Williams ends the day with six receptions for 80 yards and a score, I think Washington will be in a great position to start the Chris Petersen era at 5-0.
All right, it's prediction time! How do you see this one shaking out?
Alex: I will probably be in the minority of national pundits and Husky fans, but I'm picking the Huskies to beat the Cardinal.
For the Huskies to come away with a victory, they need to win the special teams battle. It's not a stretch to claim Ty Montegomery single-handedly beat the Huskies with two big returns during last year's game—and that can't happen again. Additionally, the Huskies need to create some big plays of their own in the return game via Dante Pettis, John Ross, or Budda Baker.
With a few strong returns and good field position, the Husky offense should be able to score enough to win this game. I'm not expecting the same offensive performance as last year, but a performance similar to two years ago should be enough if the defense holds their own. I wouldn't be surprised to see Shaq Thompson more involved on offense, especially with the season-ending injury to Jesse Callier.
On defense, I expect the Huskies to fill the box and force the Cardinal to throw. The Cardinal offensive line may be elite, but Kevin Hogan is an average quarterback. Washington's best shot to win this game on defense is to force Hogan to throw. If the Huskies can pressure Hogan—sacking him or making him throw before he's ready—they will have opportunities for turnovers and touchdowns.
Ryan: I want to drink the same purple Kool-Aid (OH YEEEEEEEEEAH!) as you, but I'm afraid I just can't bring myself to do it.
Let me first throw out a disclaimer: Washington absolutely has the skill in all three phases to win this game. Cyler Miles presents a threat with his legs the likes Washington fans haven't seen since Marques Tuiasosopo took the Huskies to their last Rose Bowl win; the offensive line is among the most experienced in the conference; the defensive line is playing lights-out, including two players who have legitimate All American hopes; and John Ross might well be the single most talented player in the conference not named Marcus Mariota.
And yet, in their first four games, Washington has not shown an ability to play to the level of its talent for a full 60 minutes. Sure, there have been spurts, but that's not going to cut it against elite Pac-12 competition.
The biggest factor in the game's outcome is going to be Washington's passing game. So far, the Huskies have survived inferior competition with a one-dimensional attack of short runs and screen passes. Jonathan Smith will have to open up the playbook and present some other options for the Cardinal to defend; otherwise, Washington's offense risks being shut down by one of the nation's top defenses.
Do I think that Washington will eventually play a complete game in all three phases? Absolutely. I just have trouble predicting that it will happen for the first time against the conference's two-time defending champion. Stanford 24, Washington 17.