Washington Offensive Scheme
Though it is only averaging 26.7 points per game this season, Washington is one of the best prepared and coached teams in the Pac-12, and this is as evident on the offensive side of the football as anywhere else.
Second-year head coach and offensive architect Chris Petersen has a true freshman starting at quarterback, Jake Browning, and a unit that has one of the least impressive combinations of talent and experience in the Pac-12, and yet the Huskies have been very competitive in every game this year despite a 4-5 overall record (2-4 in conference games).
A big part of the way in which they've been able to do this is to be more deliberate offensively and really work to lessen the risk of having a true freshman at quarterback. The Huskies are averaging just 65.5 offensive snaps per game and yet have a respectable 5.8 yards per play -- more than Arizona State's 5.6 yards per play -- and there is a hyper-focus by Petersen of trying to created advantageous situations that Browning can exploit.
As much or more than any other team the Pac-12, the Huskies use pre-snap shifts and motions out of their spread offense, and often layer these window-dressings in an effort to get defenses to make communication and key read mistakes.
An offense that has a fair amount of similarities to ASU, the Huskies nonetheless do a lot more shifting of players pre-snap, moving receivers to the backfield and vice-versa, flexing tight ends out or bringing them to an in-line position, moving two tight ends from one side of the formation to the other, and sometimes doing one or more of these things together. Then on top of that they'll subsequently motion closer to the snap in order to further create opportunities for defenses to make mistakes.
Washington's offense is all about two things: setting traps for defenses to fall in with its motions and shifts; using those motions and shifts in an effort to generate advantageous one-on-one situations or a numbers advantage. The Huskies work especially hard to get receivers and running backs working against linebackers in coverage, and do this by attacking the shallow to intermediate middle of the field with a lot of mesh routes. They also will use shifts followed by motion to try to out-flank opponents on the perimeter in the run game.
They'll also keep defenses honest vertically by trying to set up big play opportunities, and do so creatively and again, in a way that tries to provide the best match up advantage, so if an opponent has a coverage liability down the field at its boundary safety position as example, it'll create a formation and situation designed to go at that.
The Huskies are very balanced offensively, with a run/pass breakdown that is virtually 50/50 and they're top two backs both average better than 5.8 yards per attempt, led by true freshman Myles Gaskin. He'll get the ball a lot on offensive concepts that look quite similar to ASU, with power, inside zone and traditional sweeps being staples. Gaskin had more than 100 rushing yards against USC, Oregon and Stanford and averaged more than 19 carries in those three games.
One of the things ASU will have to watch for in this game, is the Huskies tendency to use trick plays on offense, and especially immediately following so-called "sudden change" situations. On the first play after opponents turn the ball over, the Huskies like to take big, unconventional shots down the field.
Washington Offensive Personnel
Jake Browning (No. 3) -- The second true-freshman starter in a season opener at quarterback in Washington history after Marcus Tuiasosopo in 1997, Browning looks like a player who will shatter a lot of career records at the school. It's something he has a lot of experience with. As a high school senior in 2014, Browning tied a national record with 91 touchdown throws in a season. He owns the California records for touchdowns, completions and passing yards in a career and is the first player in American high school history with more than 60 touchdown throws and more than 5,000 yards in three straight seasons. Browning is accurate but not big or athletically dynamic. He's asked to manage an offense and make good decision throws.
Myles Gaskin (No. 9) and Dwayne Washington (No. 12) -- Though undersized at 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds, Gaskin is a good inside-outside runner who has impressive vision and instincts and very good durability for a true freshman rusher. He's not used hardly at all in the passing game, with the Huskies tending to bring in Washington, or go to two-back sets with both players in the game when they're intending to throw the ball to someone aligned in the backfield. Washington has 25 catches on the season with a team-high of three touchdown receptions.
Jaydon Mickens (No. 1) -- An extremely fiery competitor, the wiry 5-foot-11, 170 pound senior has 30-plus starts in his career. He's quicker than fast and a good route runner whom Washington likes to use on return routes that sell slant and then break to the corner. He's also used a lot in two man mesh and bubble concepts on base downs.
Joshua Perkins (No. 82) -- Washington's second leading receiver by Mickens, Perkins is a versatile tight end prospect who will align all over the place, from in-line to the boundary side receiver in isolation. He's a mismatch against linebackers and has the athletic ability to make impressive plays on the football even when thrown to on the perimeter, and is a key blocking weapon in a variety of applications. Perkins averages a team-high 14.4 yards per catch, which reflects his big play potential despite being a tight end.
ASU Defense Against Washington Offense
Communication and being on the same page is of critical importance against the Huskies, as it's the area in which the Sun Devils have had massive struggles in recent losses to Oregon and Washington State. Washington lacks a big play potential and averages fewer first downs than any team in the Pac-12 and has one of the least potent offenses. It doesn't have vertical play makers or big backs with speed and the ability to run over teams. But the Huskies do a very good job of inducing defensive mistakes. This is a rare game in which given ASU's challenges in the secondary and true freshman Kareem Orr and senior Kweishi Brown struggling, ASU may be well served to play more conservatively with its blitzes and force Browning and the Huskies to sustain drives. But Browning has shown, as a freshmen, when he's less comfortable in the pocket, he's more mistake prone.
Washington Defensive Scheme
The Huskies lost so much from their defense last season and yet haven't taken a step back whatsoever from an overall productivity standpoint, which is one of the most impressive storylines of the entire Pac-12 season.
After the departure of beastly nose tackle Danny Shelton and destabilizing edge rusher Hau'oli Kikaha from the Huskies defensive front, it seemed very likely that Washington would take a step back. It hasn't happened.
Washington's scoring defense is first in the league at a stingy 18.8 points per game, and also first at yielding just 4.8 yards per play.
The Huskies' red zone defense is far and away the best in the Pac-12. They've been score on fewer times than any other team in the Pac-12 at 78.1 percent, and have yielded far fewer touchdowns as a percentage, just 13 in 32 opponents trips, which is 41 percent. Stanford is the only other team under 50 percent in this category and just barely. Most defenses in the Pac-12 are allowing touchdowns to opponents between 55-65 percent of the time in the red zone.
How has Washington been able to do all of this?
They're very selective with their blitzing approach, mix coverages well, and are very athletic and assignment sound in the secondary. Most remarkably though, even they aren't getting the statistical pop from their defensive linemen like they did last year, the Huskies are very structurally solid at the point of attack.
A great indictor of that is how sophomore inside linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria have cleaned up, leading the team with 72 and 55 tackles, respectively. They're very sound players who have been enabled by their defensive linemen to come downhill freely and without offensive linemen reaching them and being disruptive blocking at the second level
The key weapon is their so-called Buck linebacker, which is where Travis Feeney is playing this season as a fifth-year senior, replacing Kikaha. The Buck linebacker is similar to how ASU uses its Devil linebacker position as an edge rusher.
In the secondary, sophomore Budda Baker is an absolute freak of an athlete who has moved between cornerback and safety and is of late playing the field side safety position. Baker's been able to play safety because Washington has some of the best cover corners in the Pac-12, led by Sidney Jones, Darren Gardenhire and Kevin King.
The Huskies align field and boundary and look a lot like ASU formationally and with myriad coverages, move their safeties all over the place and also play a lot of situational nickel, which is where King has all three of his interceptions.
Washington Defensive Personnel
Azeem Victor (No. 36) -- A first year starter at inside linebacker, Victor has made more stops than anyone on the team by far with 72, and been in position to do so quite consistently not only because he's a good player but because of how well his teammates up front have generated such opportunities. At 240 pounds, Victor is better against the run than pass but has pretty good zone awareness and skills against the pass. He's second on the team with 6.5 tackles for loss.
Cory Littleton (No. 42) -- An outside linebacker in the Huskies 3-4 odd-front scheme, Littleton is the rangiest of the team's linebackers, better in coverage than others, and also the most likely blitzer when the defense brings five man pressures. He has 45 tackles, nine for loss and 4.5 sacks, which is second on the team.
Travis Feeney (No. 41) -- A fifth year senior, Freeney moved into to the high-production Buck linebacker role this season, which is a primary edge pass rusher, and is having a great season, with 13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 41 total tackles. He's a varietal pass rusher, doesn't have the explosive power of the player he's replaced, but is crafty and capable.
Budda Baker (No. 32) -- One of the best pure athletes in the Pac-12, Baker has terrific range from the field safety position, reminiscent of former ASU starter Damarious Randall. Baker is also fearless and aggressive. He has great range, and is a big factor in the team's overall ability to avoid giving up big plays.
Sidney Jones (No. 26)/Darren Gardenhire (No. 3) -- A good and athletic cornerback duo, this is about as solid a job as any team's cornerbacks have been in the Pac-12 season and the numbers reflect it. Jones has nine passes defended and six breakups, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Gardenhire has seven passes defended, five breakups and two interceptions.
Kevin King (No. 20) -- Has played a lot of nickel but also rotates in at cornerback. King has three interceptions, eight passes defended and five break ups.
ASU Offense Against Washington Defense
Success against the Huskies' defense has to come at the point of attack. ASU's offensive line is coming off its best two performances of the season, against Oregon and Washington State, and have to build off of that to provide opportunities for their running backs to help open up the rest of the offense. When sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are healthy they have the ability to be a productive one-two punch. ASU will have to make sure to account for Feeney in is protections and try to maximize the value of senior D.J. Foster on run replacements in the box. This is a game in which ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has to embrace a chain moving approach to football. The Huskies don't have enough potency on offense to get separation from ASU and Norvell maximizing drives is a big part of this game, especially as the Sun Devils get down into the red zone, where the Sn Devils have been challenged this season and Washington has been stellar.
This seems destined to be a close game that doesn't have too many points unless there's a lot of turnovers or other huge critical mistakes. The Sun Devils have lost three straight games in which they've had a lead in the fourth quarter and are overdue to win a close one. I'm picking ASU to win 27-24.