Going up against Washington, the No. 6 team in the country, Arizona State will face its toughest challenge yet against a Huskies' team that is coming off its first loss of the season.
ASU head coach Todd Graham has called the Huskies the “best team” in the Pac-12 this year and many ASU players have gone back to watch the film of UW’s game against USC to see how the Trojans broke UW’s 12-game win streak.
“I was watching it live at my house, but USC came in there and I know Washington had kind of been struggling the past two weeks, but they came in there and I think they won 26-13 or whatever and it shows they aren’t invincible and it gives us good confidence going into this week,” redshirt freshman running back Nick Ralston said.
ASU sophomore defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said the worst thing ASU can do prior to the game on Saturday “is defeat ourselves before we even play a game.”
“We know what we have to do,” ASU senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes said. “We have to come in and win this ball game.”
Obviously winning is easier said than done and ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said he thinks the Huskies will be extra motivated coming off a loss. However, Lindsey said whenever two top teams play, one has to lose so as far as Washington's last game is concerned, Lindsey didn’t think “there is anything to read into other than we got to make sure we give ourselves the best chance to win.”
“I don’t really care for it,” ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said about UW potentially being extra motivated to win on Saturday. “It is what it is. I would rather play a team that plays hard than doesn’t. It makes it harder when a team isn’t trying. It makes everything more difficult when they are playing slower and things like that. The fact that they are going to be fast and hungry just makes it better.”
At the helm of the Huskies’ program is UW head coach Chris Peterson, who is in his third year leading the team. Prior to being hired by the Huskies, Peterson was the head coach of Boise State for eight years, recording a 92-12 record overall.
ASU secondary coach T.J Rushing said UW executes at an “extremely high level” and a lot of the credit goes to the Huskies' offensive coordinator, Jonathan Smith, and its head coach, Peterson.
“They have great skill players and the quarterback is phenomenal,” Rushing said. “Just as good as everybody else we have played and they got some special talent. They do a good job of scheming people."
Rushing said Peterson is known for his shifts and motions on offense ever since his days at Boise State, so ASU will have to be prepared on Saturday.
“It’s what they do and so they do a great job of it and a great job executing it,” Rushing said. “You’re like how in the world do they have all this time to do all this shifts and motions and plays, but they execute it. Certain guys do certain things and they do it well.”
With all these motions and shifts, Rushing said UW is one of the better coached teams ASU has faced in the league and is as well prepared of a team as the Sun Devils have faced this season.
“They try to window dress a lot of things with that,” Smallwood said. “It works good. They do what they do well, but they have certain personnel and they run certain plays with that sort of personnel. That’s just for us to study and for us to know and once we study that and once we get that down it’s pretty simple.”
On the field, UW sophomore quarterback Jake Browning is a Heisman Trophy candidate, with 35 passing touchdowns, five interceptions and 116 completions for 2,532 yards this season.
“He’s (Browning) one of those guys who takes what the defense gives him and he has a lot of key players and a lot of support as far as receiving corps that makes plays down the field that helps him out,” ASU junior linebacker Marcus Ball said. “I think it’s one of those things where if you can stop this team from one-play touchdowns, big plays down the field and long vertical shots, you can have a lot of success with that being limited.”
Ball said Browning is great at going through his motions on the field, going through his first, second, third reads and then looking to the check down to find holes in the defense.
“He’s (Browning) confident back there,” ASU senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola said. “He has trust in his players. Trusts his playmakers, getting the ball there and putting it on the money and some of that gets set up with the running game and so it helps him a lot and they got a great defense so it’s going to be a fun game. He’s just more mature. You can tell he’s a different guy back there, but we did play him last year and we know what we do.”
The Huskies are averaging 477.1 yards of total offense, 267.5 yards through the air per game this season.
“I didn’t get to play against him (Browning) last year because I was hurt that game, but I thought he improved a lot,” sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr said. “Growing up, I think he’s more like a Josh Rosen type. Very similar to him I see. I think he’s a very good quarterback.”
Smallwood said the goal on defense is to bring pressure on Browning, the same as what the Sun Devils did in their game against UCLA.
“It seems weird,” Smallwood said. “He (Browning) has only faced pressure like what? 12 times this year? It’s crazy. So we are definitely going to take advantage of that. Kind of do what we did to the UCLA quarterback. That’s going to be our goal.”
Rushing said UW is very good at generating matchups to expose weaknesses and on offense, the team runs a lot of play-action, but specifically does a good job with balance in the run and pass game.
“This isn’t like an Air Raid team where you are throwing it up,” Rushing said. “They do a great job of play action, taking shots so if someone is falling asleep on their job, somebody is not reading their keys, somebody is not where they are supposed to be, Ross exploits them. What, 15 touchdowns this year? That’s a lot. Pettis has 11.”
UW wide receiver John Ross leads the Huskies receiving corps with 52 catches for 896 yards, an average of 17.2 yards per catch, and 16 touchdowns on the year. UW junior wide receiver Dante Pettis is second on the team with 39 catches for 596 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Rushing said Ross is a “big-time challenge” for ASU and if he gets past the defenders vertically, he has the speed and strength to separate and is hard to tackle in open space.
“John Ross is a guy that can get in and out of his routes,” Hayes said. “One cut, two cut guy that can make you miss type so it’s definitely fun because I love the challenge like that. Speed against speed.”
Orr said he will play to the field this week against UW, matching up against Ross.
“Ross is in my opinion, there’s not a better player in this league and that’s saying something, that we’ve faced,” Graham said. “I would put him up there. I think (USC cornerback) Adoree Jackson is one of the best corners in our league, one of the best players in the league, but I think Ross is the most explosive guy this season that I have seen this season on tape.”
Graham said he is specifically impressed with Ross’ toughness, speed, explosiveness and route-running ability. Graham said the “big difference” in this UW team from 2015 to 2016 is the production from Ross.
Orr said he went back and watched the UW-USC game not because that was his normal routine, but because he specifically wanted to see how Jackson played him.
“Thought Adoree (Jackson) did very good against him,” Orr said. “Adoree played a lot of off, which is what you should do, you shouldn’t be pressing a guy like that with that type of speed so I’m probably going to do the same.”
In the run game, UW sophomore running back Myles Gaskin returns as the leader in the Huskies' run game, averaging 100.3 yards per game. On the year, Gaskin, 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, has 166 carries 1,003 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.
“They got a good, sound offensive line,” Hayes said. “The running back is a little shifty little kid, but like I said if we go out and stick with our defensive scheme and do our part we are going to fine.”
Joining Gaskin in the backfield is junior running back Lavon Coleman, who is averaging 60.6 yards per game and has three touchdowns on the season.
“They got their running game that has been fine-tuned over the years and it’s not like they have new players,” Moeakiola said. “It’s just guys playing with a different edge and mentality and they got a quarterback who does a good job operating their system.”
In UW’s loss to USC last week, sophomore safety Armand Perry said he noticed how the Trojans really keyed in on stopping the Huskies' run game, only allowing 17 rushing yards.
“They killed their run, that’s what I noticed,” Perry said. “With a guy like Ross, he is going to make his plays, but you got to make yours too. That’s what Adoree Jackson did and I felt like John Ross got the better of him as a man, but Adoree also came up big for his team and they just played together, rallied to the ball. No. 45 was playing very aggressive (Porter Gustin) he had a really good game. He had three forced sacks or something like that. Just getting after the quarterback and playing as a team.”
Weather-wise, the last time the Sun Devils played at Husky Stadium, winds were over 50 miles per hour and rain was falling down sideways. On Saturday, the forecast is in the mid-50s and calls for rain in the Emerald City.
“That’s something you can’t prepare for,” Hayes said. “You can go out there and it can be sunny and the second half it can be stormy and rainy. You just have to go up there mentally focused and you got to be mentally prepared.”
Hayes said if the weather conditions are rainy and cold, it could definitely help ASU in the turnover battle. This year, Washington leads the Pac-12 in turnover margin, with a plus-15 mark. UW has 24 total fumble and interceptions gained and has only lost four fumbles and five interceptions.
“I think Saturday, plus-four on the turnover margin is what is going to be essential,” Ball said. “Getting four turnovers, I believe that will guarantee us a win.”
According to Hayes, not many players are going to wear gloves in conditions like that so it will be easier to get the ball out of their hands. Browning will have to get the ball out of his hands quicker and his receivers and backs will have to hold onto the ball a little tighter.
“Doesn’t matter,” Ball said about the weather conditions. “Simple as that. Doesn’t matter at all. We are ready to play in any weather, any condition because wherever we are, we are Sun Devils. We are bringing the fire to you.”
On defense, the Huskies are No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing opponents to score 17.9 points per game and are No. 2 in the conference in total defense, giving up 336.8 yards per game.
“They are just very fundamentally sound,” ASU wide receivers Jay Norvell said. “They don’t do a lot of different things and over the years really a lot of the best defenses don’t do a lot of different things. They really do what they do very well, they play your percentages and just line up and play good fundamental football.”
ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said UW has good players across the board at every position, just as the Huskies have done for the past four years Thomsen has been at ASU. Thomsen said he compares UW to Colorado in terms of how well they execute and the talents it has at its disposal.
“I’ve never played against a Washington team that didn’t, and they do a really good job,” Thomsen said. “They have a really good foundation on defense of just a good four-down team and then they adjust, they make some adjustments off of that, that can potentially be confusing and so they don’t vary much from what they do. They just tweak it here and there and so I just think their players are older and better enough to understand what their coaching staff wants.”
One of the highlights of UW’s front seven is its “BUCK” linebacker position. The role is a hybrid linebacker role that focuses on the pass rush, similar to what ASU has in its Devil linebacker position.
This year, UW junior defensive end Joe Mathis was starting at the Buck linebacker position until he got injured four games ago. Mathis was UW’s sack leader prior to his injury. Junior Connor O’Brien has now taken his place and has 27 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and one interception on the year.
Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Zach Robertson said despite Mathis being out, even their backup tackles, namely O’Brien, are “big, physical guys” and the way to attack the Huskies will be to create lanes in the run game.
“They are really good up front,” ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said, “Their front seven I think is really talented. Those guys play extremely hard and they’ve played awhile. Those guys have been around and they are very well-coached and sound and they are going to make you earn it for sure. I think they are very comfortable in their system and it’s a big challenge for us for sure.”
Norvell said UW’s tackles in particular are strong and physical up front and since their ends stand up (Buck linebacker) it makes a unique challenge, even outside on the perimeter in the flat.
“They play a little different style than even-front teams because their ends stand up,” Norvell said. “Their ends are kind of hybrid end-type bodies so they are good pass rushers, they are athletic and they read really well and they also are probably more active in the flats in the passing game than normal defensive ends would be so they’re good. They read extremely well. Some of the perimeter run game, they are able to play it a little bit better because they are stand up and so you have to really be good. Running right at them is good.”
Norvell said UW isn’t “as big on the edges as some of the teams” ASU has played, but they remain very athletic and blocking up front and staying on their man will be a key for the Sun Devils on Saturday.
“We are going to have to do a good job of getting open quickly and getting the ball out of our hands and not holding it,” Norvell said. “We have to show some improvement from a week ago doing that, but really good defense. Really well-coached. They don’t beat themselves. Coach Petersen has won a lot of games not beating himself, so he’s a tremendous coach and it’s kind of a reflection of the philosophy they’ve always had.”
Even prior to this year, former UW player Travis Feeney thrived in the Buck linebacker role, recording 17.5 tackles for loss for 62 yards and eight sacks in addition to three forced fumbled and 56 overall tackles.
Before Feeney, in 2014, Hau’oli Kikaha was in the Buck linebacker position and recorded 35 tackles for loss, 19 sacks and three forced forced fumbles in addition to 72 tackles overall.
“I think they have just done a great job developing those guys,” Thomsen said. “Last year, No. 42 (Cory Littleton) and No. 41 (Travis Feeney), the first time I played against them in 2013, they were just skinny guys that looked like you know a Jalen Bates when he was young. They were just getting in the game a little bit. They were just skinny fast guys and we could come and get our hands on them and hold on.”
Thomsen said the tables really turned for Feeney and Littleton in 2015, despite nine UW defensive players graduating from the 2014 class. Overall for UW, it’s all about developing young players and working them into the Huskies’ system.
“You’re thinking well nine graduated so they might not be as good, but No. 41 (Travis Feeney), and No. 42 (Cory Littleton) (were) grown up,” Thomsen said. “They have done a nice job. (Former UW head coach Steve) Sarkisian and that staff recruited some of those guys and Peterson, their staff has recruited some really good guys. They’ve just developed it. Their scheme is real solid, sound. Those guys are just growing up in it. Player development.”
In addition to Mathis being out, UW will be without junior outside linebacker Azeem Victor after he suffered a broken leg in UW’s loss to USC last week. Victor was leading the Huskies in tackles with 68, three tackles for loss and one forced fumble.
In the trenches, 318-pound sophomore nose tackle Greg Gaines plays alongside 321-pound junior tackle Elijah Qualls. Gaines leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss and also has 3.5 sacks.
“Their middle guys, their nose and their d-tackle, they are really, really big dudes,” ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said. “They are similar to Utah. They anchor down and take up two blockers and that’s big. If you can’t use one on him and one on a backer it really opens things up so it’s those middle guys for sure.”
In the secondary, UW junior cornerback Sidney Jones, 6-foot, 181 pounds, leads the standouts in UW’s secondary with three interceptions, 2.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, seven passes defended and 27 tackles.
UW junior safety Budda Baker has 47 tackles, one interception, two pass breakups and three passes defended, but also has 5.5 tackles for loss.
“They try to squeeze out and take the air away from the defense so they don’t play a lot of very much off technique so they try to take the easy throws away and challenge all those easy throws and make you really work,” Norvell said. “It’s a challenge.”
Schematically, Norvell said UW plays a lot of single high safety coverage and in doing so, the Huskies play very sound.
“It’s tough to get by them and it’s tough to run deep past them because they are very disciplined,” Norvell said. “They really force you to execute which is what good defenses do so we got to do a goo job of being patient and executing and moving the chains.”