"Very hot and cold so far this year - very inconsistent. They've looked good offensively against Syracuse and USC, but struggled mightily against BYU and Nebraska. Defensively they've struggled a lot versus the run, let in the fourth quarter they seem to step up and make a play or two that allows the offense a chance to win games. Bend but don't break comes immediately to mind. And special teams has definitely been a work in progress, especially the cover teams - which should play right into ASU's hands.
"Steve Sarkisian has tried to go with a lot of talented, but young, players in his special teams, and it's had mixed results at best. Erik Folk - like Thomas Weber - is one of the best kickers in the country - so I think both teams have to feel good about their chances if the game hangs on a made field goal at the end. In some ways, you can look at how Jake Locker has done as a microcosm for how the team has done. If he has a big game, they usually win. If he struggles, they struggle."
Who has been the biggest surprise and the biggest disappointment so far on the team?
"This is going to sound like a cop out, but the biggest surprise has been the punter, Kiel Rasp. He was a walk-on last year that decided not to come back before the UW coaches asked him to come back after Will Mahan got hurt in fall camp. Expectations have been low on Rasp, and he's certainly exceeded them by a mile. He's averaging around 45 yards a kick, and though he only had to kick once against USC he's gaining confidence and could be a real factor in the field position game Saturday night."
"The biggest disappointment to me so far has to be the defensive line as a whole. They are ninth in the league in sacks, ninth in the league in rush defense, and rarely are they getting any substantial push by their front four. The front four only are averaging a sack a game, and they need to do so much better. They usually need help from DC Nick Holt, in the form of disguised blitzes, to do their damage. Their defensive ends are fairly young, but athletic. Their tackles should be a strength, but seem to have a problem with pad level, getting stood up at the line of scrimmage, which allows for huge running lanes and windows to throw through. They have to step up in a big way Saturday, or Steven Threet will have a field day. All the other QB's have."
What are your evaluations of Nick Montana and Erik Kohle in fall camp? Is Montana being groomed to replace Locker? If not him then who?
"I think both Keith Price and Nick Montana are being groomed to replace Locker. Price had a TD throw against USC, which should boost his confidence. Honestly we don't get to see much of Montana running the offense because he's usually serving as the lead scout team QB (he'll be Threet for the Huskies this week like he was Matt Barkley last week), but I believe the fact that he was able to enroll early and take advantage of spring ball will come to really benefit him starting this winter. That way, when spring ball comes around next year, he will hit the ground running.
"As far as Erik Kohler goes, you'll see a lot of him against ASU, because he's started the last two games as UW's left guard. The UW coaches wanted more size along their OL, and they got it with Kohler. He's done a very good job in the run game; he'll need to pick things up a little more in the pass protection phase but the upside on him is incredible. I think the last true freshman to start for UW was Olin Kruetz (I may be wrong, so don't quote me on that), so it doesn't happen very often.
What did Nebraska do to slow down Washington and what did the Huskies change to rebound against USC?
"Defensively, they disguised their coverages very well on the back end, and their secondary is one of the best in the country. They confused the heck out of Jake and it showed on his throws, especially the first throw of the game. I think the Nebraska coaches dialed in pretty quickly with what UW's game plan was, and negated it - forcing UW to beat them through the air, and Locker really struggled with what he saw. Offensively, they just played with a lot of confidence and executed the way they knew they could. They rammed it down UW's throat and kept doing it. They were able to effectively take the Husky Stadium crowd out of the game by the end of the half by running, running and running some more. The Huskies have typically done a good job in the fourth quarter of stopping teams and limiting what they do, but that game was over by the first play of the third quarter.
"As far as the USC game, to me they flipped the script and took a page from Nebraska's playbook. They didn't worry about the scoreboard. They just executed, played loose and fast, and took advantage of spreading a young USC defense out. That, and Jake Locker got confident early by making some easy throws and moving the chains. When he starts out with confidence, he usually plays at a high level and trusts what he's doing and what his teammates were doing. And like I said on defense, they played bend-but-don't-break, limiting USC's scoring chances late in the game, and capitalizing on turnovers when they were made available. They played USC heads-up in special teams, didn't give the Trojans the ball on offense, and stayed with USC all game long. It felt like a heavyweight fight, with both boxers trading blows.
Is Sarkisian keeping the Huskies focused for the game, and trying to avoiding a letdown following your big victory against USC? How do you think his preparation will change this week from last week?
"It's a great question, because it's one Sarkisian addressed Monday. After UW beat USC last year, he felt like the team's collective head was in the clouds, so the staff went about beating them down ('bringing them down to earth'). That following week, they got killed at Stanford, and Sarkisian thought in hindsight that they should have tried to keep them at the level they were at and kept pushing the idea that they were good enough to beat anyone, anytime. They are trying that approach this week, telling the press that the team's feet are firmly on the ground."
What is seen as the key to stopping the Sun Devils on offense? Limiting the running attack, forcing Threet into long downs? Or putting constant pressure to rattle Threet, which in turn may slow down the offense?
"Another very good question. I just spoke Tuesday with CB Coach Demetrice Martin, and he said it all boils down to how UW tackles as a group. The Huskies only have one interception so far this year, and the message he's giving to his guys is - if I'm the other coach and I know I can run the ball, that's what I'm doing. So we need to stop the run, which in turn will force the other team to throw, so the secondary will have more chances to pick passes off. So that's what I'm going with. UW needs to play fundamentally sound in the run game, which they really haven't done to date.
"Granted, they've played a couple very good run teams in Nebraska and USC, but they didn't do a very good job against BYU, and we were told the reason for that was because one of their QB's ran the option, which they found difficult to defend. But if UW can slow ASU down to the point where Threet is pressured to throw, they should be able to have success that way. I haven't seen much of Threet this year, but looking at his TD/INT ratio, he seems to run hot and cold.
"The other way to look at it is by creating ball possession with the UW offense, moving the chains and killing the clock. UW is capable of doing that, but I don't know if Sarkisian is capable of using that as a strategy for an entire game. His personality is way too aggressive for such a methodical plan."
Washington had a tough loss last year at ASU due to a mix up by the secondary, is the secondary more instinctive now since they have played in Nick Holt's system for a couple of year?
"Not really, in my opinion. You used the word instinctive - and to me the secondary is still fairly young. They use a junior and sophomore at the corners and a senior and sophomore at the safeties. Their depth consists of one senior, one sophomore, one redshirt frosh and two true frosh. Sarkisian is definitely trying to get his players into the system and acclimated as soon as possible, and that comes with some growing pains. The plus side to all this is that the secondary hasn't really given up a great deal of 'big' plays over the top. They gave up a 48-yard TD against BYU, but it was to a running back who ran free down a seam. Their next longest pass was 25 yards.
"Against Syracuse they gave up a 37-yard pass that was also in front of them. Nebraska completed an underneath route to one of their receivers, who outran most of UW's defense for 55 yards. The longest completed pass by USC was 26 yards. The downside is that they've probably suffered a death by a thousand paper cuts because of their inability to tackle, and considering ASU has some big wideouts in Mike Willie and Gerell Robinson, they just might make it tough on UW if the Huskies don't trust their fundamentals."
Nick Holt had mentioned Foster and Trufant as being key performers on defense. Can you talk about that tandem and are there any others players that have stepped on this side of the ball?
"Foster is a future NFL player, like Donald Butler was for UW last year. Sarkisian has said many times that he feels UW had the best LB in the Pac-10 last year (Butler) and this year (Foster). He just does it all. He's probably best known for the pick-six he had off DeLaShaun Dean's foot in UW's dramatic win over Arizona last year, and he's that kind of defensive playmaker. He has a nose for the ball. Desmond Trufant is the younger brother of Seattle Seahawks' corner Marcus Trufant, who I'm sure most of you remember played at Washington State. Desmond is a determined young man, and while he's not at that elite level yet - he's getting there. He's easily the best lock-down corner UW has (which, in all honesty is damning with faint praise), and he's not shy about supporting the run. He's got a great football IQ.
"As far as others on defense - Alameda Ta'amu is the big guy in the middle, and he's commanding a lot of double-teams of late. Trouble is, the other linemen haven't been able to win a lot of their one-on-one battles, so his efforts have been somewhat wasted. The middle linebacker is Cort Dennison, and he's the heart and soul of UW's defense. He had a concussion and didn't play against Nebraska. I think having him back for USC was pretty big. He's not going to remind ASU fans of Vontaze Burfict at all in terms of athleticism and the rest, but he is an incredibly heady kid. Smart as all get-out. He's the one responsible for lining up the defense and making sure they know what they are doing.
"Nate Fellner has done some nice things in his second year opposite senior Nate Williams at the safety spot. Fellner is a hard-hitter and again - tough as they come. Sometimes the disregard for his own body borders on reckless, but I know ASU fans are used to seeing that with some of their guys. His grandfather is the great college coach Jim Sweeney, so football runs in his veins."
How in your opinion has Locker improved from last year?
"Well, to be honest I haven't seen a ton of improvement yet. As I stated above, his game has been so hit and miss the first four games, it's as if how he's gone is how the team has gone. He's at 53 percent completion percentage, which is well below where he needs to be. I still think he's thinking too much, and that's where it was nice to see him play fast and loose against USC. He clearly had confidence in the game plan, and Sarkisian gave him early throws, which in turn gives Locker more trust in what he's brought to the field. When Locker can spread it around, use all his weapons in the short passing game and sprinkle in some non-designed runs (scrambles), I feel that's when he's truly at his best, because he's very difficult to beat when he's built up a head of steam. I expect that his best football is still well ahead of him.
"The only problem is that if he runs up against a good scheme, one that is successful in taking away UW's run game - I don't know if he has evolved enough yet in understanding the passing game where he can take the game on his shoulders and win by solely throwing the ball. The silver lining to that for UW is that, if they are forced to throw, he appears to be more accurate while on the run, and he's always got that impressive ability to scramble and make a play where it didn't look like one was there."
The perception is that Locker doesn't have quality targets to throw to. Agree or disagree?
"Disagree 100 percent. I can certainly see why people might think that if they saw the BYU or USC games, for instance. There's no doubt that group has been inconsistent. But Jermaine Kearse is the best WR in the league, in my opinion. What's killing him right now is that he disappears for stretches, and that didn't really happen last year. Devin Aguilar is a really good second option for Locker (they hooked up for a 44-yard TD over the top against USC), and James Johnson is coming back from a high ankle sprain and the ASU game will be the first game all year when he's been 100 percent healthy. He played sparingly against USC, but I know he's ready to go.
"The X factor now appears to be senior D'Andre Goodwin, who has risen from the ashes. Two years ago, he was UWs' leading receiver (60 catches for 692 yards), but was lost in UW's depth last year. He made the key 4th and 11 grab against USC to keep the Huskies' final drive alive, and it looks like Locker is starting to build back some chemistry with Goodwin.
"And I would be remiss not to mention the running backs - Chris Polk and Jesse Callier - who are also instrumental parts of UW's pass game. Combined, they've caught 11 passes for 94 yards. So Locker has conceivably five or six legitimate targets he can throw to during a game."