We are just a few days away from the commencement of the biggest football game that Chris Petersen and the Washington Huskies have ever participated in ... well, at least since the Rose Bowl of the ‘91 season. The opponent is the #1 ranked and seemingly impervious Alabama Crimson Tide. The prize is the right to have a ticket punched for a trip to Tampa to play in the college football national championship on January 9th.
No pressure, right?
By now, UW’s game plans are set and fully installed. Players have been educated on their assignments and have had the opportunity to get both their minds and their bodies in as good as shape as possible. All that is left to do now is to set the table and get ready to eat.
But will the Huskies be chowing down or will they be scrounging for the morsels dropped from the table by their invincible opponent? Most analysts agree that the Huskies will have to play their best game of the season AND get a little luck along the way to beat the vaunted Crimson Tide.
I’m not so sure that luck is required. The Huskies have both the talent and the depth to make a ball game of this contest simply by playing to their strengths. We’ve talked about this at length. Stopping the run, executing the mid-range passing attack, hitting on a few explosives and winning the turnover battle are all elements of the game that must be achieved for the Huskies to be competitive.
Even should UW achieve those basic objectives, it likely will not be enough. Similar to the impact that Taylor Rapp made in the PAC 12 championship game, the Huskies are going to need a contribution from an X-factor.
The very term “X-factor” is derived from basic algebra where the letter “X” is used to designate an unknown variable. The implication for this game is that UW must get some surprise contributions from an area on the team that the Crimson Tide may not be focusing on or may not be prepared for. It may be the case that Nick Saban might even see this factor as a weakness to exploit.
That Alabama can’t “see it coming” would seem to rule out things such as a big day from UW’s rushing attack, the conversion of a few explosive trick plays or a huge sack day resulting from UW’s blitzing attack. Nevertheless, there are some areas of the team that have been showing signs of a possible break-out but that may not be fully registered on the Alabama radar. Let’s examine those areas - and those players - in my look at UW’s top 3 X-factor possibilities for the upcoming Peach Bowl.
Run defense - DJ Beavers & Ben Burr-Kirven
The key to winning any game is to outscore your opponent in any way possible. The most plausible way to do that against Alabama is to not allow any non-offensive scores (you may have heard that ‘Bama has scored one of every five of their TDs this season outside of the offense) and to shut down their entire rushing attack.
The Huskies have been good-not-elite at stopping the rush all season. Their 3.46 yards per attempt surrendered is 19th in the nation. However, since star MLB Azeem Victor was lost for the season, they have been elite. They have surrendered just over 2 yards per carry against opponents since Beavers and BBK took over for Victor.
Some of this has to do with opponents while even more has to do with the significant help that DC Pete Kwiatkowski has dialed up with the safety play. However, one cannot deny that we are seeing a clear upward trajectory with both of the UW substitute linebackers. Beavers, a freshman, and Burr-Kirven, a sophomore, have shown poise, instincts and the ability to play with leverage as they’ve gained valuable experience in the last quarter of the season. For those of you worried about their size, consider that Alabama’s star MLB Reuben Foster is 222 lbs, just a few pounds heavier than either of UW’s backups.
I expect that extra blockers will be focused on Keishawn Bierria and that ‘Bama is focusing intently on running at UW’s younger linebackers. If those two can rotate effectively and mind their cues, they have a chance at being the real difference between a successful or a stunted Alabama rushing attack.
Punting game - Tristan Vizcaino
When we last saw Vizcaino, he was having what was easily the best game of his young career as a punter. Distance has never been a problem for the strong-legged UW kicker. However, the prowess that he showed in both directional kicking the ball and giving his coverage teams a chance to make plays was clearly on display against the Buffaloes.
For UW to have a chance to beat Alabama, they have to take advantage of the fact that ‘Bama is unlikely to aggressively try to push the ball down field via the air attack and that they are somewhat inefficient in the red zone (their red zone TD % is just 61% - 63rd in the nation). Long fields are going to play well into UW’s hands if they can establish them. Vizcaino has a chance to be a real difference-maker in an aspect of the game that ‘Bama has no real ability to affect as long as UW simply does its job. Long kicks and downed punts are both going to be required in order to flip fields and establish position advantages.
Offesnive mismatches - Chico McClatcher
I’m cheating here as there is virtually no chance that Alabama is unaware of what Chico McClatcher brings to the table. The Huskies sophomore WR / RB is 9th in the nation in yards per completion (20.0) and has compiled a spectacular highlight reel on the year. That he is a well-known commodity as a recruit and a player to both ‘Bama OC Lane Kiffin and former UW head coach Steve Sarkisian only cements the notion that McClatcher will be keyed on during the game.
But McClatcher can still be an X-factor for UW. As a decoy or as a principal, it is a very good bet that McClatcher will be a contributor to many or all of the explosive pass plays that UW generates in the game. Keep in mind that star safety Eddie Jackson and ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton - both of whom were key elements in defending slot receivers in ‘Bama’s defense - are out of the Peach Bowl with season-ending injuries. Slot defense will be a bit a kludge for Alabama in this one.
Because of that, McClatcher may have the most favorable matchups of any UW offensive player. He could, accordingly, affect the outcome of the game in a variety of ways. He could goad the aggressive Alabama defenders to play out of position or to overpursue in order to help compensate for their weakness in the slot and create plays for others. He could simply make chain-moving plays in the middle of the field when gaps form among less-experienced players. Or he could change the nature of the rushing attack with jet sweeps or as a safety-baiting decoy in an RPO. These are all roles that Chico has played at different points of the season.
McClatcher might be the most important variable in the entire Husky offense and, thus, needs to be included in my list of possible X-factors.
Others considered: Kick return game, Coleman Shelton, Benning Potoa’e, Taylor Rapp, Kwiatkowski’s run-blitzes, the Lindcat option pass