It's not an overreaction to say that the razor-thin 17-16 victory over Hawaii changed things. Over the course of the long off season, I grew increasingly optimistic about the veteran offensive line, the fearsome front seven, and the overall coaching prowess of Chris Petersen. It's now clear that I also glossed over the seriousness of replacing most of the defensive backfield and stars at quarterback, running back, and tight end. Considering his familiarity with the team, the game may not have changed anything about Coach Petersen's process and expectations. As someone seeing this team for basically the first time, my expectations have received a reality check for the time being. This team was not ready to dominate so-called "lesser competition" like Hawaii. Eastern's high-octane spread passing attack could prove to be an even greater challenge.
Vernon Adams Jr. treats his FCS competition like the CPU in a video game. In 2013, his first full season starting, he completed 319 of 486 passes (65%) for 4994 yards and 55 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions. Even against mostly FCS teams, that is undeniably impressive. Plus, 23 of 30 for 411 yards and 4 touchdowns in a road win over Oregon State proved that Pac-12 defenses are not automatically immune to his quarterbacking. He is capable of tearing an FBS defensive backfield apart.
A combined 132 career starts are lost on the inside, as both guards and the starting center have graduated. Jake Rodgers, senior transfer from WSU, will start at guard opposite Aaron Neary. Senior Jace Butorac is listed as the starting center. On the outside, both starting tackles from last season, Clay Debord and Cassidy Curtis, return as juniors.
This line appears to be reloading rather than rebuilding. Returning both tackles, both All-Big Sky level players, will be key to dealing with Kikaha and other Washington edge rushers. Matching Danny Shelton with three new full-time starters could be problematic, but all three are upperclassmen with at least some experience. Washington's defensive line is better than this O-Line, but it remains to be seen if the Huskies will win a modest edge in this battle, or dominate the contest.
The number one man is sophomore Cooper Kupp, he of the 93 catches for 1691 yards and 21 touchdowns as a true freshman. Washington will not be able to focus too much attention on the young star, given Eastern's tendency to pass out of four and five-receiver sets. Cory Mitchell and Shaq Hill combined for over 1,000 yards in 2013, while Blair Bomber and Kendrick Bourne could seize bigger roles.
So far through two blowout victories in 2014, Adams has spread the ball around, especially to Bourne and Hill, leaning less on Kupp than one might expect.
It's easy to assume that Eastern abandons the run in favor of the pass. Unfortunately, that's just not true. In 2013, Quincy Forte tallied 1208 yards and 11 touchdowns, and Mario Brown contributed just under 400 yards and four scores. Both averaged over six yards per carry. Eastern's staff certainly watched Hawaii's Joey Iosefa run all over the Huskies last week. Until Washington's linebackers show that they can reliably stuff the run, you can bet a healthy dose of run plays will break up the aerial attack.
I did not anticipate worrying this much about Eastern. Now, the issues in the secondary seem especially troubling given that the offense can not be counted on to light up the scoreboard. Perhaps Cyler Miles will have a break out game. More likely, he will experience some of the same growing pains that held back Lindquist, and the Husky defense will have a limited margin for error.
Jermaine Kelly has been the target of much criticism. The depth behind him, including Naijel Hale, Sidney Jones, and Travell Dixon, is mostly unproven and will be needed to cover Eastern's fourth and fifth receivers. The impact of Marcus Peters will be limited by the sheer number of targets to be covered.
The safety spots are hardly locked down, either. Hawaii picked on Budda Baker early in last week's game, and that may be Hawaii's approach as well.
Aside from the defensive backfield, the linebackers were a mess last week. Shaq Thompson remained largely invisible until late in the contest, and the blame for the embarassing run defense lies mostly with this position group.
If the defense this Saturday consists of a bunch of wide-eyed corners playing 10+ yards off their man and confused linebackers missing assignments and tackles, Danny Shelton and Hao'oli Kikaha will not be able to stop Adams, Kupp, and Forte from scoring at least 30 points. While playing at Husky Stadium should help matters (especially compared to playing on the road in Hawaii), it's hardly clear if Washington can win that sort of shoot out at this point in the season.