Know Your Foe: Washington

Washington is a program which has been in and out of the Top 25 rankings, and much like many other Pac-12 teams is hard to get a true read on at the mid-season point. What challenges can the Huskies pose for the visiting Sun Devils? Editor Chris Fetters answers Sparky’s Huddle members’ questions on ASU’s next opponent.

At a 5-2 record and the only two losses coming to Stanford and Oregon, was this record a realistic mark at this time of the season with a first-year head coach or is there a sense of disappointment among Husky fans?

Fetters: Very realistic, and probably somewhat of a disappointment at the same time. The Huskies had a very good chance at beating Stanford, but Oregon still very much eludes them. If UW was 6-1 with a win over Stanford right now, I think all Husky fans would have taken that as a very acceptable place to be halfway through the season.

As it stands, 5-2 still means 10 wins is attainable, and I believe that’s what most Washington fans see as a good start under Petersen. I thought the over/under this year was going to be nine wins, and right now nine wins is looking pretty good. But I think a lot of fans would be frustrated with nine, especially given the amount of defensive talent on hand and the easy non-conference slate.

Arizona State obviously didn’t have best of luck hiring a former Boise State head coach. Despite all of his success up there, was there much apprehension over the hiring of Chris Petersen and what is the fan perception of him thus far?

Fetters: There was absolute no apprehension when Petersen was hired, and I think the local, regional, and national perception immediately was that UW got an upgrade with Pete over Sark. I still think people generally feel that way.

But I was caught off guard with just how much of an overhaul would take place right away - and I think there are a good number of fans that are feeling the same way. Coming off a nine-win season, I think fans here just thought Petersen would come in, sprinkle some of that magic Boise dust that earned him two National Coach of the Year awards, and off we go. But he has changed literally every facet of the program, from recruiting, to strength and conditioning, to nutrition, to how they practice.

The way the program has been rebuilt resembles more a situation where a new coach is coming in to repair a shambles - not a program that just won nine games. But Petersen is so wedded to his system and believes in it so much that he doesn’t know any other way. There hasn’t been a transition more than a complete regime change.

There were very several key players for Washington banged up against Oregon last week. Which ones do you expect to see on Saturday and which ones are questionable?

Fetters: I would believe Cyler Miles has to be a question mark. With as seriously as they take concussions nowadays, he wasn’t allowed to have his helmet when he was taken out Saturday night. It wouldn’t shock me at all if he didn’t play against Arizona State. Same with Dwayne Washington. Chest/rib injuries are extremely painful, and he went out early against Oregon never to return. I’d have to think - to put an NFL tag on it - Washington is a doubt. Lavon Coleman pushed through and really toughed out a stinger against the Ducks, and I suspect he’ll be ready to play - but I don’t think he’ll be at 100 percent. Could that mean more RB carries for a guy like Shaq Thompson? Or maybe John Ross or Kendyl Taylor? Both were RB’s in high school.

Petersen had a reputation at Boise State of being innovative on offense. Have you seen this aspect show up a lot in the passing game?

Fetters: No. There are a couple big reasons for this. First, I don’t think they truly trust Cyler Miles and where he is developmentally as a passer to throw it all over the field, and especially downfield. Secondly, Kasen Williams is a shell of himself right now, having not fully recovered from a nasty ankle/foot injury against Cal last year. Damore’ea Stringfellow transferred to Mississippi, so the only big receiver with any experience right now is DiAndre Campbell. Brayden Lenius is 6-5 but the true frosh just hasn’t played much yet. That means their main receiving threats are all the scatback, smaller guys - guys like Ross, Jaydon Mickens, Marvin Hall, Dante Pettis, etc… They are dangerous with the ball in their hands, but Miles’ mechanics means the ball gets to the receivers slower than you’d like to see if you are UW OC Jonathan Smith.

Is the lack of a running game the last few weeks simply Petersen not trusting the backs or is it lack of depth?

Fetters: It’s a perfect storm of OL and RB injuries, an underachieving offensive line, and general lack of execution. But it really starts up front. At the beginning of the year the OL had over 130 combined starts, but then right tackle Ben Riva got hurt and he’s never really recovered. His replacement, Coleman Shelton, is a redshirt frosh. They went from using last year’s starting center in Mike Criste - a pre-season Rimington Watch lister - to Colin Tanigawa, so Criste hasn’t been a factor at all.

Given the massive amount of experience with the offensive line, it’s pretty impressive how Washington hasn’t been able to do much at all offensively once Pac-12 play began. And with the running backs banged up, the only healthy returning RB is Deontae Cooper, and he’s suffered three ACL tears in his Husky career - so you can see the irony. And finally, much of the run game is based on the zone read, and Cyler Miles has been a bit inconsistent in always making the right decision in terms of reading the end and whether or not to keep. He’s getting better, but it’s definitely a work in progress.

What has made this Washington run defense such a formidable unit and conversely what are the reasons for the struggles on pass defense?

Fetters: The easy answer to the first part is experience and size, while the easy answer for the second part is complete lack of experience. Washington has four senior starters along the defensive line, and they have three returning starting linebackers behind them. That makes a formidable front seven, whether asked to shut down the run or get after the QB. They’ve been equally adept at both.

The Oregon game exposed a chink in their armor, but I’d argue that if Oregon dedicated themselves that much to the run like they did in the Chip Kelly days - especially with Marcus Mariota pulling the strings - they’d do that against any defense in the country. As far as the secondary, they are starting two true freshmen in safety Budda Baker and cornerback Sidney Jones, and there are two backup cornerbacks that will also play in Naijiel Hale and Darren Gardenhire. Ironically they also have a sure-fire NFL talent in Marcus Peters at the other starting cornerback spot, but he’s also been a bit erratic in his play. To be fair, the youth in the back has continued to get better and better every game, but they are still very much learning on the job and will continue to keep learning all the way to the end of 2014.

Who are some of the lesser known players on this Washington squad on both sides of the ball that ASU fans should be aware of?

Fetters: Offensively, tight end Joshua Perkins always seems to find a way to impact the game when he’s in there. He was, in my opinion, incorrectly ejected for a targeting call against Cal that had nothing to do with targeting. Perkins seems to have a nice rapport with Miles (if he plays) and is also one of the few UW receivers that can find some separation.

On defense I think Baker is the true frosh every UW fan wanted to see, and I think it’s clear how he’s played the last few weeks that he’s ready to take his game to the level everyone expected he would be at. He’s a very talented player, but is also clearly thinking out there instead of just letting his natural football instincts come out. I have a feeling his name is going to be called a lot Saturday night. The final guys I’ll mention are both special teamers. Dante Pettis showed versus Georgia State that he can be a game-changer returning punts if given a chance. And punter Korey Durkee had arguably the best game a UW punter has had in years against Stanford. He single-handedly switched field position a number of times and kept the Cardinal bottled up in their half of the field for much of the game. He’s got a huge leg, but inconsistent drops have always been his biggest issue.

What are your keys to the game and score prediction?

Fetters: Keys to the game are going to be the same as what they normally are; turnovers, running the ball, stopping the run, special teams. I will be interested to see how Todd Graham utilizes Taylor Kelly right from the first series. Is he going to ease him in a bit, or just throw him out there with the full arsenal like he never left? One thing I will say is something Chris Petersen mentioned Monday. The Huskies have seemed to play their best when they have something early go their way. At Cal it was Shaq Thompson’s 100-yard scoop and score. Against Oregon John Timu should have had a pick-six that could have put UW up 7-0 early, and that could have changed momentum in a big way.

The longer ASU plays solid football, not giving the Huskies anything cheap in the way of a turnover, short field, etc… the better the Sun Devils’ chances are to eventually pull away from UW. I’ll have a score prediction on Dawgman Friday, but needless to say ASU is playing some really good football right now, and they also have Washington’s number in a BIG way - eight-straight wins starting in 2002. I’d be hard-pressed early in the week to predict a Washington win, even at home - so I will say that. Not sure my mind is going to change much between now and Friday.

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