SunDevilSource: Was there a sense around the program heading into this season that Washington would be capable of being a Top-5 type team nationally after a 7-6 (4-5) result in 2015?
Chris Fetters: There was, but not this year. 2017 was supposed to be the year. By then, all of Washington's top offensive skill players would be juniors, players like Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin and Chico McClatcher. Plus the Huskies' offensive line would be more experienced and John Ross would be returning for his senior season with a (hopefully) full healthy year under his belt. On defense the front seven would be a year older, and it would be able to replace expected outgoing players like Sidney Jones.
But Browning has matured quickly, the offensive line has come together quickly, and Ross has combined with McClatcher and Dante Pettis to create one of the most potent offenses in the country. And defensively the Huskies have just gotten better and better with each game. It hasn’t hurt that Washington has also been able to create a lot of turnovers. With the offense being stingy about keeping the ball, it’s allowed the Huskies to have the best turnover margin in the country. And we know how big that can be when trying to win games.
SunDevilSource: What have been the primary drivers of Washington's resounding success this season, be it scheme, player development, execution, recruiting, etc.?
Fetters: As stated above, it’s guys maturing quicker than anticipated, the offensive line producing, players staying healthy (at least until the Mathis and Victor injuries), and winning the weekly turnover battle. The Huskies haven’t beaten themselves. Even in last week’s loss to USC, that was just the Trojans being much better on the day.
One other factor that has been talked about a little bit in terms of helping player development is the fact that Chris Petersen and his assistants aren’t afraid to put untested players out there to show what they’ve got. True freshman offensive lineman Nick Harris got his first career start at Utah, not exactly a soft landing. Washington has played a ton of players throughout the season, and that should help the Huskies as injuries start to mount up. Clearly D.J. Beavers isn’t going to give the UW defense the same thing Azeem Victor gave them, but he’s played a lot and shouldn’t be awed by any situation heading down the stretch. Same goes for Connor O’Brien filling in for Joe Mathis.
SunDevilSource: This is the top scoring offense in the Pac-12 and also tied for the top scoring defense. That's a remarkable accomplishment. What factors contribute to how seldom the Huskies turn the ball over (fewer than once per game) and how have they tended to generate takeaways?
Fetters: As Petersen has joked this year, it’s not as if they coach it more than any other staff in America. So some of it is just fluke luck. Sometimes the ball just bounces your way more than others. But teaching technique has certainly played into it, and proper positioning has helped a lot too. Up front, Washington - at least until Mathis went down - was able to put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks with just four rushers, allowing seven defenders back there to pounce on any errant throws.
The Husky defense also prides itself on physical play and getting after ball carriers. They always say their No. 1 job is to score. And if they can’t do that, it’s to get the ball back. So that will give you some idea of how they feel about turnovers and how important it is to their mission on defense.
SunDevilSource: There have been several key injuries in recent weeks, including most recently the team's top tackler, Azeem Victor, against USC. How has the team responded to these injuries and what challenges are presented as a result?
Fetters: Their response has been simple: Next man up. That’s how they’ve approached it all year long, even with starters that have only been out a game or two but have come back. Losing Mathis was big, but Connor O’Brien has stepped in and is now a veteran. He knows what he needs to do. Same with players like D.J. Beavers and Ben Burr-Kirven when it comes to replacing Victor.
But the reality is, those guys can’t replace starters. They’d be starting if they could. Mathis has only played six games this season, yet still leads UW in sacks. And Victor has led the Huskies in tackles all year long. They were two very productive players. So Washington will have to reproduce that production in the aggregate. It will rely on guys like Keishawn Bierria to pick up the slack.
SunDevilSource: What did USC do offensively and defensively that led to the Trojans' 26-13 win in Seattle? The Huskies were especially off their game on the offensive side of the field.
Fetters: On offense, USC just kicked Washington’s butt up front. Sam Darnold had lots of time to look downfield, and he showed nice poise in managing the game and taking what the Huskies were giving him. And Washington's defense played well for the most part, but USC exposed Beavers on its final touchdown when he didn’t track back to cover the Trojans’ tight end in the end zone.
Defensively, it was another butt-kicking along the line of scrimmage. It started with the run game. USC took away the outside runs with its athleticism and just forced everything back inside to its bigger tackles. Washington finished the game with just 17 yards on the ground. In the pass game, USC just bull-rushed Browning and made it tough for him to sit on his spot and pick the Trojans' secondary apart. And he floated a couple of passes that might have well been red meat to guys like Adoree Jackson, who had two picks. When Browning had a clean pocket he was able to do some things, but that wasn’t often.
When USC got up two scores, Washington abandoned the run completely. The Huskies didn’t run the ball once in the fourth quarter. And when you make an offense as one-dimensional and as predictable like that, you’ve already won.
SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting on Saturday, what are the key things to look for, and what's your prediction?
Fetters: I expect some points scored. I think Washington’s offense is smarting from getting stuffed by USC and will want to reclaim some pride along the offensive line. I expect a heavy dose of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, leading to Browning exploiting some play-action opportunities.
Defensively for Washington, it needs to reestablish itself along its spine. The Huskies need to get guys like Beavers and Burr-Kirven comfortable early. ASU has such weapons on the outside, including Tim White and a guy like N’Keal Harry that the Washington coaches desperately wanted to flip, and the Huskies have to be very cognizant of their big-play capability.
I’ve seen the spread at around 26-27, which seems like too much to me. I’m guessing it’s probably going to be more like 17-20 points, with Washington eventually getting some things done through the air. ASU will get its yards and some points, but I like the Huskies to bounce back and win something like 42-24.