This is the 17th 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 Washington State. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp, Hawaii (Week One), Hawaii (Week Two), Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State, Stanford, Bye Week, Cal, Oregon, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State, Washington State.
Ryan: Once again, it's that most wonderful time of the year. Forget presents and cocoa with peppermint schnapps—it's bowl season, baby!
No matter what presents they found under the tree, Husky fans will get another gift in the form of watching three All-American players on defense play their final game in Washington uniforms. Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikaha, of course, will finish out their senior seasons against Oklahoma State, and if you believe that Shaq Thompson is coming back to college after Sports Illustrated graded him a top-10 prospect, then I have a couple of bridges to sell to you.
Not all of the action will be seen with Oklahoma State under center, though. On offense, Kasen Williams will have one last shot to perform at the high level he's displayed in the past, but has struggled to replicate at times this year during his tough road to recovery. Meanwhile, Cyler Miles will look to put in a strong performance to help him solidify his role as the team's starting quarterback in 2015, and Dwayne Washington will hope to do the same as he fends off challenges from Deontae Cooper and Lavon Coleman.
Last year, Washington fans were dealing with the sudden departure of Steve Sarkisian to USC; in that regard, 2014 has been much calmer. How would you characterize Chris Petersen's first year as UW's skipper?
Alex: After a tumultuous period between the end of the regular season and the bowl game last year, that same period this year has been rather tame in comparison. Instead of a massive coaching change that left graduate assistants to hold regular coaching positions, this year's team has been treated to a plethora of oral commitments from recruits and selections on All-American teams.
Despite the transition and challenges faced by last year's team leading up to the Kraft Fight Hunger bowl, Husky Legend and interim head coach Marques Tuiasosopo managed to steer the Huskies to victory. Without the transition and challenges faced by Tuiasosopo and the makeshift coaching staff, Petersen and his staff should have their team well prepared to defeat an inferior opponent.
With a victory on Friday, the Huskies will finish the season with nine wins and some momentum entering the offseason. Entering this season, some Husky fans expected a double-digit win total, with an outside chance of making the inaugural College Football Playoff. Such homeristic expectations were not completely unwarranted. With a stout front seven on defense and a veteran offensive line that was buttressed by a two-time Bear Bryant Award-winning coach and a weak early season schedule, some thought it possible that the Huskies could surprise the Pac-12 and the nation by sneaking into the playoff. As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friends."
A young secondary and inconsistent offense coupled with two questionable coaching decisions—the fake punt play call against Stanford and the "Wounded Knee" play calling against Arizona—have all made even a double-digit win total impossible. However, despite failing to meet certain Husky fans' expectations, there have been several positive developments especially over the season's course. And the bowl game provides one last chance to put an exclamation mark on the season. What's the key for the Huskies to avenge their previous loss in the desert earlier this season?
Ryan: There's something of a poetic justice to Washington finishing its season at the Cactus Bowl in Arizona, the state where Chris Petersen suffered arguably the worst loss of his career earlier in the season. The storyline of his chance to redeem that performance in which the Dawgs snatched defeat from the jaws of victory will certainly be front and center as they prepare to take on Oklahoma State.
It's unlikely that the multitude of factors that contributed to Washington's loss to Arizona—Deontae Cooper's first career fumble, and an apparent misunderstanding of how many timeouts Arizona still possessed being the most glaring—will come to pass again, but there's certainly opportunities for Washington's players and coaches to correct those earlier mistakes.
In particular, we can rest assured that Coaches Pete and Smith have taken a long, hard look at the almighty chart that laid at the heart of the clock management debacle of the Arizona game. No amount of spin could disguise the fact that the staff let a signature road win against a top-10 opponent slip through their fingers, which caused no shortage of consternation on this very blog. And while the Cowboys are decidedly not a top-tier opponent—losing five of your final six tends to take off the luster—they will nonetheless provide Petersen with another chance to show off the skills that brought him to 100 wins faster than almost any other coach in college football history.
Which Husky departing after Friday's game do you think will make the game's biggest impact?
Alex: Departing defenders Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikiha, Andrew Hudson, John Timu, and Shaq Thompson all seem destined for big games against a rather average Oklahoma State offense. The defensive line should finish with numerous sacks, and I wouldn't be surprised to see "Touchdown" Thompson find the end zone on defense one more time.
On offense, several members on the line—Micah Hatchie, Mike Criste, Colin Tanigawa, and James Atoe—will be playing their last games in purple and gold. Their collective performance will have the biggest impact on the game's final outcome. Good protection in the passing game will be especially important for Cyler Miles and the Husky receivers.
I doubt Kasen Williams will have the biggest impact on the game, but I hope he has some impact to speak of. Williams' horrific, season-ending injury in 2013 combined with the tumult that inevitably accompanies a coaching change has led to a disastrous senior season. Other than Criste's inexplicable absence at center for most of the year, Williams' lack of production has been the most surprising story of this season. In his final game as a Husky, I hope the offensive coaching staff can involve Williams in the offense so he ends his college career on a high note.
Without further ado, I believe its prediction time.
Ryan: There's no question that of the two teams coming into the Cactus Bowl, the Dawgs have the advantage of positive momentum. After all, the Huskies have spent the last several weeks watching its star players be showered with All-American accolades; meanwhile, the Cowboys' most notable post-season move was the dismissal of star running back Tyreek Hill.
Of the players that will take the field Friday, perhaps no greater mismatch exists than the one between the Cowboy offensive line and the Husky defensive line. The Dawgs boast two All-Americans at defensive end and tackle in the forms of Hau'oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton, respectively, as well as a 10-plus sack artist in Andrew Hudson. Meanwhile, the Pokes have 37 sacks at the rate of more than three per game, a figure that ranks 112th in the nation. Even worse, 17 of those sacks came in their last four games, including seven courtesy of Texas. (The Longhorns' 40 sacks, by the way, rank several spots behind Washington's 49.)
The Cowboys aren't entirely hopeless, of course. In particular, they are one of the nation's most effective defenses in producing tackles for loss, accumulating 7.42 per game to rank 14th in the country. UW's running game certainly found a rhythm toward the end of the season under the leadership of a healthy Dwayne Washington, but UW's offensive line will have to be playing at its peak to prevent the OSU defense from forcing demoralizing three-and-outs by putting the offense into third-and-long situations.
I won't be surprised to see the Washington offense come out to a slow start that could be further hampered by an Oklahoma State defensive front seven that specializes in disrupting its opponent's rushing attack, but I think that the Huskies will decisively win the turnover battle (UW is plus-12, while OSU is minus-8) and that the defense will again lead the way to a comfortable UW victory. Washington 31, Oklahoma State 17.
Alex: Oklahoma State's season was off the rails—six straight losses in conference play—until they pulled off an upset victory against rival Oklahoma in their final regular season game. I expect that the Cowboys, who just managed to gain admission to the bowl season, should challenge the Huskies in the beginning, but will struggle to stay with them throughout the game.
The Husky defense should have their way with the Cowboy offense, which lacks any significant threat to challenge the quasi-veteran Husky secondary. The Hudson brothers (no relation), Shelton, and Kikaha will force Daxx Garman to deliver the ball quickly to Branden Shepherd and the other Cowboy receivers. While the defense should have little difficulty handling the OSU offense, the Husky offense needs to play with the efficiency it displayed against Oregon State and Washington State to come away with a victory.
Cyler Miles' play on offense will be the biggest key to determining the outcome. A poor performance will lead to a close game, while a strong, efficient performance will most likely lead to a big Husky victory. With so much time to prepare, I think Miles will play his best game of the season.
I'll call it Washington Huskies 38, Oklahoma State 20.