Know Your Foe: Washington

Much like Arizona State, Washington is sitting at a 4-2 record after facing its own "mini- gauntlet" of their schedule with games against Stanford and Oregon. After two consecutive losses are the Huskies expected to rebound in Tempe this weekend? Dawgman.com Editor Chris Fetters answers that question and others Sparky's Huddle members' queries on ASU's next opponent.

Is there a sense of disappoint over the Huskies' mid-season record? Additionally, in the past two losses, what is the fan base most upset with?

Fetters: I think there's a bit of a sense of disappointment, more with the Stanford loss than the Oregon loss, simply because of getting through this current three game gauntlet and how important it was to win at least one of those games. Also a lot of people felt this was going to be the year UW would beat Oregon, but as we've seen the Ducks just might have their best team ever and I find it highly unlikely they'll get seriously challenged the rest of the season. But I also believe most UW fans realize that there has been improvement in the team, even if it's taken longer than anyone would like.

Earlier this season ASU faced "the gauntlet" playing Wisconsin, Stanford, USC, and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks. Washington's had to play Stanford, Oregon, and now ASU as their own "gauntlet". How would you gage the current team's psyche going into this game? Do you see a legitimate concern for a possible tailspin here?

Fetters: Well, there have been players that have admitted to anxiety issues during the Oregon game. In hindsight, the occasion got to some of them, and I think it surprised them too. They got sloppy with their eyes and technique, especially on defense - and you just can't do that against a team like Oregon and expect to compete for four quarters. They are just too good and are going to take advantage of even the slightest mistakes because of their speed and discipline.

In that respect, I think going on the road comes actually at a good time for this team; they have to rally around their teammates because that's all they have. Sarkisian has already talked about how this is the biggest game of the year for them, and it's not just because it's the next game. It's because they need to stop the bleeding and I think he's keenly aware of the fact that this could get away from them if they don't have a great week of preparation.

Quarterback Keith Price has performed very well so far this season after underperforming last year. What factors have contributed to his increased production level this season?

Fetters: I think a few things. First, he's a year older and has more experience. Secondly, the offensive linemen that were thrown into the fire during 2012 are also a year older and wiser for having gone through the experience. Last year they wouldn't have had experienced depth; now they have a guy like Erik Kohler that can jump straight in with minimal drop-off.

Third, Bishop Sankey's production is going to force defenses to respect him, giving Price just that extra beat or two to find receivers down field. Fourth, the up-tempo attack seems to be suited to his style of play. Last year he seemed to be at his most productive when just lining up and going fast. He doesn't think as much, relies on his preparation and gets lost in the game.

Fifth, because of the up-tempo attack, there are a lot more throws in the offense that are completed within a 10-15 yard box, so he's able to complete a lot more passes because they aren't taking as many shots down the field. They want to take more, but their success on the edges of the field means they'll continue to mine that area until defenses try to stop it. Last year Bishop Sankey was unfairly overshadowed by other Pac-12 running backs, but as the nation's top rusher that obviously won't happen this year. As good as he was in 2012, do you feel he's significantly better in 2013 and if so why?

Fetters: I don't feel he's significantly better; he's just been that consistent. I think Sarkisian is relying on him more and more (40 carries v. Arizona can attest to that) and he's finding different ways for him to affect the running game. Sankey's biggest asset is the consistency in which he prepares and plays, so it's no wonder Sark has put an unbelievable amount of trust in him.

As good as Price and Sankey have been, it seems that the receiving game hasn't been up to par and really has no dominant wide receiver. In your opinion, has the passing attack been somewhat disappointing to date?

Fetters: I don't think it's been very disappointing. At Oregon, for instance, Sarkisian said that the Ducks did a great job of disguising coverage to make things 'grainy' for Price, especially down the middle of the field. And yes, the receivers do need to figure out how to get better separation, but Kasen Williams can be (and has been) a dominant wide receiver. Jaydon Mickens is racking up catches, and it's just a matter of time before he breaks a couple. Same with John Ross, and Kevin Smith may be the most pleasant surprise of anyone on the offense this year for UW. But really, for UW to have a dominant passing attack, the receivers have to make themselves available on a more consistent basis, but Price also has to trust his reads and throw with anticipation - not one of his strong suits.

Tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins seems like he is not having the season that you hoped for this year. Other than his first game suspension, why do you think he has not been more productive this year?

Fetters: Couple reasons. First, the up-tempo attack isn't best suited for such a big kid. He's 270 pounds, and for him to constantly have to run routes and then be expected to run block - let's just say it's a tremendous challenge for him. Because he was suspended for a large chunk of spring and then got hurt during fall camp, he's still catching up when it comes to being in the kind of condition he needs to be in. Second, Price has been taking what's been given to them in the pass game, and that's been the side-to-side passes, the screens, the bubbles, and the quick game.

ASJ's game is more in the intermediate zones and the seams…those routes take time. Third, Price just hasn't been looking for him as much when the play breaks down. It seems weird when you've got a 6-7, 270-pound guy roaming out there, but for some reason Price either doesn't have the trust in ASJ to make a play or he's simply not looking for him.

The hiring of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has been one of the bigger conference staff moves in recent years. What team attribute has he improved the most on resulting in the better defensive play? Is it more team speed, playing more physical, better recruiting, or better schemes?

Fetters: I think the genius of Wilcox is that he's breaking the thing down and giving the defense chunks of information in a way they can digest it and understand it and it translates on the field. Guys just aren't lining up and running to spots and doing what the coaches are asking them; they understand the underlying concepts so now they can make adjustments and play the game fast because it's not just regurgitation. They aren't just memorizing facts; they've become real students of the game, which also helps them prepare better each week when you're facing different offenses.

Who have been some of the defensive standouts to date?

Fetters: Along the defensive line, Danny Shelton and Hauoli Kikaha have been the most effective players. At linebacker, John Timu runs the show. He is the Carl Bradford of UW. Shaq Thompson gets a lot of the accolades, and rightly so - but Timu is one of the defensive captains and he's usually the one at the top of the tackle stats after every game. In the secondary, Sean Parker is the senior safety that keeps them organized, and Marcus Peters has a chance to be as good as Desmond Trufant when it's all said and done. He's the next great UW lock-down corner.

Looks like they were some serious injuries to Washington in the Oregon game. Can you talk about the team's health and how those injuries may impact Saturday's game?

Fetters: Sark said they had the normal bumps and bruises, but outside of Dexter Charles' shoulder injury, it sounds like everyone practiced. Keith Price's thumb still could be a concern, but Sarkisian said Monday that he took all the Monday reps in practice and continues to prepare without interruption.

Given that ASU's offensive scheme does have many similarities to Oregon's, do you feel that Washington will employ a similar game plan? What are the ASU offensive aspects do you think concern the Husky defense?

Fetters: Well, when you have the nation's top scorer, he has to become a serious point of emphasis, so I imagine they've tried to do their homework on Grice. And I also have the impression that they are going to defend Taylor Kelly in much the same way they tried to defend Southwick from Boise State and Scheelhaase from Illinois - both pocket quarterbacks that have enough in the run game to be considered dangerous. They call it, 'closing the cage'.

They want to produce enough of a pass rush to rattle Kelly, but not give him avenues to escape for easy first downs. It's a fine line toward wanting to be aggressive to get sacks yet the primary concern is to contain Kelly and get him maybe out of his first or second reads. And Strong has turned out to be a real find at receiver, so they have to be aware of him at all times and not allow him to get behind them.

Do you feel that the way the team has played so far and the fact that they're ranked in the Top 25 mid-season has "cooled off" Steve Sarkisian's seat and he now enjoys broader support from the Husky faithful?

Fetters: I think he's always generally received broad support from UW fans for one big reason - he's the anti-Tyrone Willingham. He has ingratiated himself with the donors and the former players and has really tried hard to show that he bleeds purple and gold. Sure the wins haven't come as he would have hoped, and finishing the way they did in 2012 was a major letdown. But people have seen the improvement and they understand that things are headed on an upward trajectory.

The feeling on Montlake is pretty good right now, but if they lose a game they weren't supposed to, that feeling could turn on a dime. Husky Nation is still in a somewhat fragile state because of the way Willingham left it, and while there will always be a faction of the fan base that doesn't believe Sarkisian is the answer, there's no question that whenever he does decide to leave (or gets fired, whichever comes first), he's left the program in a lot better spot than where he found it.

What are your keys to the game and score prediction?

Fetters: I think the Stanford game gave the blueprint for UW success on the road; win the game on offense and defense, don't lose the turnover battle, and don't lose it on special teams. There's no question UW has the athletes and the schemes in place to match up with ASU, but winning away from Husky Stadium is the one thing Sark has not been able to do. That has to change now, even though I don't think it will. I think ASU is just too tough at home and Todd Graham gets credit for turning Sun Devil Stadium back into a tough place to play.

I think it's going to be right at the line, but ASU probably wins somewhere around 31-28 or 34-31. Do I think UW could win? Absolutely. But I also think ASU believes this is a game they should win, and they are good enough to stay with UW. That's why it'll probably end up being a very, very close game - a well-played game - but I think Vegas has it right. It'll probably be a field goal late that spells the difference.


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