This is the fourth 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 Eastern Washington. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp, Hawaii (Week One), Hawaii (Week Two).
Ryan: I'll begin by quoting my prediction in last week's column:
Whatever holes Washington might have, the holes that Hawaii has are much, much bigger. I expect Washington to amass a four-touchdown lead by the end of the third quarter, and a garbage time score or two by the Warriors will make the scoreboard look a bit closer than it was. More to the point, I will be shocked if the outcome of this game is ever in doubt. Washington 45, Hawaii 17.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why games are decided on the field of play.
Let's start with a couple of positives: The Huskies are 1-0, they don't have to play on the road again until Oct. 11, and we got to watch Jeff Lindquist drop this absolute bomb into the bread basket of John Ross.
Other than that, just about everything the Dawgs did on Saturday failed to meet expectations. Against a Hawaii defense that gave up 214 rushing yards and 281 passing yards per game last year, Washington gained just 174 and 162, respectively. Likewise, Hawaii rushed for 115 yards per game last year; on Saturday, Washington yielded 217 to the Rainbow Warriors.
Perhaps most worrisome, the Washington offense (which rewrote the program record book last year) looked positively impotent in the second half, going three-and-out on five of its final nine drives. Discounting Lindquist's touchdown pass to Ross, the quarterback completed just nine of 25 passes for 71 yards, and was visibly shaken anytime the Hawaii defense brought pressure. Other than Ross, the receivers didn't do him any favors, either, as Jaydon Mickens had a bad drop on the first series, and Kasen Williams continues to recover from the leg injury he suffered last season.
If there's any solace to be had, it's from knowing that the Huskies were playing with a reshuffled offensive line (RT Ben Riva didn't play due to a nagging knee injury, and will likely miss the Eastern Washington game as well) and a backup quarterback on the road against an FBS opponent. The next couple of weeks with Cyler Miles taking snaps should be indicative of the kind of offense the Huskies will field this year.
What were your takeaways from last Saturday's game?
Alex: The Huskies certainly failed to meet expectations in the first game; however, one game—no matter how good or bad the outcome—does not define a season. Given the lack of context in first games, its difficult to discern how worried fans should be about the long-term prospects for this team. How good is Hawaii? How nervous were the newest Huskies? Without answers to these questions and many others, it's difficult to draw too many strong conclusions about this Husky team.
So if we can't draw too many strong conclusions, what did we learn in the first game? We learned that John Ross is poised for a breakout season, Danny Shelton is the anchor of the defense, and Cyler Miles is the answer at quarterback—or so we'd better hope.
On kick return and offense in the first half, Ross displayed elite speed and play-making ability with each touch. Both of those traits are familiar to Husky fans, but they came in small chunks last year—a 50-yard touchdown on a screen pass against Idaho St. or kickoff return touchdown against BYU. Petersen and offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith found creative ways to put the ball in Ross's hands throughout the game. Through one game, Ross has nearly matched his stats from last year and should continue to produce with the right opportunities.
Danny Shelton played better than any other Husky. He anchored the middle of the defense with passion and energy throughout the game—no small feat for one of biggest men on the team. Consistent performances from Shelton like he had against Hawaii will be a key to success on defense for the Huskies. Though Ross and Shelton looked like potential All-Pac 12 performers, Jeff Lindquist looked like Carl Bonnell.
I agree with you about Lindquist. His passing stats—10 of 26 for 162 yards with a touchdown—appear middling at first glance, and are downright terrible upon further investigation. If you take out the video game bomb he threw to Ross and take into account the way he finished the game, Lindquist's performance and production were even more disappointing than the stats would indicate. Not only did we learn about Lindquist through his struggles, but we also learned that the coaches don't exactly feel comfortable putting Troy Williams out there to replace him. For the sake of the season, all hope at quarterback rests in the play of Cyler Miles.
To what extent, do you think that Miles will give the Husky offense a boost?
Ryan: Based on what we saw from Cyler in last year's contests against UCLA and Oregon State, there's no reason to think that the offense won't be humming by the time the Dawgs enter Pac-12 play. Of course, Miles' performances in 2013 were aided by the presence of a Doak Walker finalist at running back in Bishop Sankey and the Mackey Award winner at tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Though there's every reason to believe that Washington has recruited well enough on the offensive side of the ball to be able to reload as opposed to rebuild, the effectiveness of the running and passing games are going to be questioned until the young players prove that they can produce on the field.
Judging from the glowing things that Jaydon Mickens and Kasen Williams have said about Miles during this week's practices, Washington fans should certainly expect to see a better product on the field than they received last week. And if they're going to beat one of the best FCS programs in the nation, they'll need to show that improvement soon.
It was pretty apparent, too, that the Husky offensive line is not set in stone—or, at least, it shouldn't be set in stone. Though he is a massive presence on the field at 6-7, 381 lbs., James Atoe has long struggled to live up to his billing, and that struggle was apparent on Saturday as the line failed to produce a running game for Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman until the game's final drive. Hopefully Ben Riva has a quick recovery from his knee injury, too, and Coleman Shelton doesn't spend his redshirt freshman year playing too many meaningful minutes.
We've focused a lot on the offense's issues, but that's hardly all that we saw that concerned us last week. What is your take on Washington's defense that gave up more than 200 rushing yards to a team that won one game in the Mountain West last year?
Alex: While the offensive performance caused concern, I'm less concerned about the defense. Yes, the Husky defense gave up more than 200 yards rushing. Yes, the Husky defense let the Rainbow Warriors control the tempo at times in the game. Yes, the young guys in the secondary struggled in the beginning of the game. But what does that mean going forward? Not much in my estimation. Here's why.
All of those concerns were valid—in the first half. While the Rainbow Warriors' first drive was an impressive march down the field, the Husky defense improved with each successive drive. Statistics matter less when you look at the trends. By the end of the game, the Huskies were holding the line of scrimmage, controlling the tempo, and playing with confidence from the front end to the back end of the defense.
Eastern Washington's offensive attack presents different challenges for the Husky defense. Defensively the Huskies will contend with a spread formation and a dynamic quarterback. Given that challenge on defense, what do you predict for this game?
Ryan: I've lost count of the number of times I've complained about FBS teams, especially those from Power 5 conferences, scheduling FCS patsies. (I'm looking especially at you, SEC teams that schedule these contests in November.) And while I despise Washington taking part in these contests as much as any other fan, there's no getting around one simple fact: Eastern Washington is anything but a patsy.
In 2011, Eastern Washington nearly walked out of Husky Stadium with a win after racking up 504 yards to Washington's 250. Last year, the Eagles took out No. 25 Oregon State in a 49-46 thriller in Corvallis. The program has amassed a 25-6 record since the start of the 2012 season, and in the first two games of this season, they have outscored their opponents 97-44.
That being said, while Washington should be wary of the Eagles, there's no reason to believe that the Dawgs will be outgunned on Saturday. Much will depend on the offense playing to its potential. Is Cyler Miles capable of making the plays that Jeff Lindquist could not? Can Jaydon Mickens make his untimely drops a thing of the past? How reasonable is it to expect breakout games from Dwayne Washington and/or Lavon Coleman? Will John Ross break the sound barrier? If the Huskies can answer some or most of these questions in the affirmative, the team should be able to put up enough points to win comfortably.
I'm putting my memories of 2011 and last week aside, and going with my gut: I expect the Washington defense to show up with the stout play that we all expected to see against Hawaii last week, and that Cyler Miles' presence gives the offense the kick-start it desperately needs. Washington 41, Eastern Washington 31.
Alex: Confidence abounds from the Husky receivers about the offense with Cyler Miles starting at quarterback. Jaydon Mickens called Miles "a new Keith Price" and Kasen Williams said that Miles throws a more catchable ball than Lindquist. While it's encouraging to hear the Husky receivers heap praise on Miles, I'm not totally convinced that the change at quarterback alone will lead to a win.
Miles will be playing his first game of the season. And even though he's had a huge share of repetitions with the first-team offense in fall camp and this week in practice, practice repetitions are not game repetitions. Just like last week with Lindquist, the Husky coaching staff will need to ease Miles into the game with high percentage throws and a consistent ground game.
On defense, the Huskies will face a good early season challenge defending quarterback Vernon Adams and the Eagle spread offense—just ask Oregon State. Though this matchup will be a challenge for the defense, the defense is built—especially at linebacker with fast, physical, and long players at each position—to withstand the aerial attack.
A strong—yet not perfect—performance from Cyler Miles and the offense will put the Huskies into position to win the game. Defense and special teams will be the deciding factor in this game with at least one touchdown coming from either of these units. I'll call it Washington Huskies 35, Eastern Washington Eagles 27.