Expert preview and viewing guide: ASU at Washington

Arizona State has never lost five consecutive games under head coach Todd Graham, but the Sun Devils are in serious jeopardy of losing their fifth straight as they travel to Seattle to take on No. 6 Washington.

Washington Offensive Scheme

In his third season as head coach at Washington, Chris Petersen is making it clear the success he had at Boise State, where he was 92-12 from 2006 to 2013, was no fluke. 

After an 8-6 record in 2014 and 7-6 finish in 2015, Petersen has the Huskies sitting at 9-1 overall and No. 6 in the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings. This, even after the Huskies lost for the first time last week at home, 26-13 to USC. 

Washington is averaging a league-best 44.8 points per game (and also are tied in scoring defense at 17.9), up significantly from 30.6 points last season. 

A year ago, ahead of Arizona State's Nov. 11 game against the Huskies in Tempe, we wrote the following: 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. 

ASU had won nine games in a row between the two schools to that point, and beat the Huskies 27-17 due in large part to three interceptions thrown by then-freshman quarterback Jake Browning. The Sun Devils won the turnover margin, 3-0. 

One of the biggest reasons for the success of Washington this year is an improvement in ball security and turnover generation. The Huskies are +15 in turnover margin, tops in the Pac-12, and they've only given the ball away nine times total, fewest in the league. Browning has thrown just five interceptions total in 10 games. He had more than half that many last season just against the Sun Devils. 

The Huskies are as deliberate offensively as anyone in the Pac-12, save perhaps Stanford, and are averaging just 64.9 offensive plays per game. But they're also averaging a league-best 7.4 yards per play, which is dramatically better than the next closest offense (Oregon and USC each average 6.5 yards per play. ASU, for comparison, averages 5.3 yards per play, which is tied for worst in the Pac-12). Last year the Huskies averaged 5.8 yards per play, so they've dramatically improved and that, coupled with their terrific ball security has led to their standing as a top-10 national program in the second half of November. 

A former quarterback and pioneering innovator who cut his teeth coaching quarterbacks and eventually becoming the offensive coordinator at Boise State, Petersen has a special knack for game planning and play calling. As much or more than any other team the Pac-12, the Huskies use pre-snap shifts and motions out of their base 11 personnel spread offense, and often layer these maneuvers in an effort to get defenses to make communication and key read mistakes. This was his calling card at Boise State and what made preparing for the team so tough, and he's continued it successfully in Seattle. 

The Huskies use a lot of pre-snap shifts, moving receivers to the backfield and vice-versa, flexing tight ends out or bringing them to an in-line position, moving 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 and 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. 

Last season, with Browning as a true freshman, the Huskies were a bit more balanced offensively, with a run/pass breakdown that was virtually 50/50. They've started to air it out a bit more, and they've done so with a lot of success. But sophomore running back Myles Gaskin is still a key player for the Huskies and they're going to work hard to run the ball, especially because it's a way for them to really enhance their play-action offense, which they execute as well as anyone in the league.

Gaskin, 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, is averaging 100.3 yards per game, 6.0 yards per carry and he has eight rushing touchdowns.  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 went over 100 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry last year in Tempe. 

The real dangerous weapons ASU will have to contend with, however, are Washington's top two receivers, John Ross and Dante Pettis. Ross, a 5-foot-11, 190 pound junior, is especially lethal. He is perhaps the most athletic wide receiver in the league, with elite quickness and elusiveness. Ross is virtually impossible to defend with any consistency because of how Washington schemes to get him the football and his fantastic route running ability. He has 52 catches for 896 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, an average of 1.5 touchdowns, 89.6 yards per game and 17.2 yards per reception. 

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 Key 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 and he's doing it well enough as a sophomore to already be in the Heisman Trophy conversation, primarily because of how well he takes care of the football. Browning's 189.1 passing efficiency rating dwarfs everyone else in the Pac-12 and his touchdown to interception ratio is a mind-boggling 7-to-1 with 35 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. 

Myles Gaskin (No. 9)  -- Though undersized at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Gaskin is a good inside-outside runner who has impressive vision and instincts and very good durability for his size. He's not used hardly at all in the passing game (12 catches in 10 games) with the Huskies tending to bring in Lavon Coleman, 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. 

John Ross (No. 1) -- An athletic freak of nature, Ross is one of the most dynamic athletes to play in the Pac-12 in recent memory. Last year he didn't play due to an injury and it kept Washington from being as potent, but Ross alone has added a significant dimension to the team's offense. He has the ability to make cornerbacks look very bad at the line of scrimmage with his quickness and unorthodox route entry. His ability to get separation is unmatched in the league, and he returns to the football extremely well, which enhances his vertical capability. He's borderline un-guardable in one-on-one situations for all but the very best college cornerbacks as long as Browning has time. He's a player you almost have to double team or bracket, but Washington finds a way to scheme to get Ross open. 

ASU Defense Against Washington Offense

Communication and assignment execution in the secondary and at the linebacker level is critically important against the Huskies, as it's the area in which the Sun Devils have had massive struggles for nearly two full seasons now. The Huskies do a very good job of inducing defensive mistakes and ASU has to be better in this regard. 

Last year the Sun Devils brought a lot of pressure on early downs in an effort to make Washington more one-dimensional and it worked. Gaskin was held to about half his rushing average and the Huskies were forced to throw the ball more than they wanted to. That contributed to three Browning interceptions, but he's improved considerably and the addition of Ross has changed everything. 

ASU's going to have to bottle up Gaskin and the run game while also finding a way to not let Ross go off for a huge night. He's capable of 200 receiving yards and three touchdowns against ASU if it goes poorly. The Sun Devils ran the football version of a box-and-one earlier in the year against Cal's top receiver and that might be the move in this game, with sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr mirroring Ross and the rest of the defense playing quite a bit of zone, alternating between pressuring and dropping more players into coverage. 

Washington Defensive Scheme

Just as the Huskies are extremely well coached and prepared on offense, so too are they on defense. That's the real reason they're having so much success this season and are set up so well for the future.

A lot of teams around the country have great offensive coaching and execution but struggle on the defensive side of the ball, or vice versa. Oregon is a team that has a very potent offense and has been abysmal on defense under its current staff in 2015 and 2016. There are Air Raid offenses, including Cal and Texas Tech, teams ASU beat this season, that hemorrhage points defensively.

Washington is nothing like that. This is quite possibly the best defense in the Pac-12, in addition to being arguably the best offense. There's never been a team in the Pac-12 that led the league in scoring offense and scoring defense, with Oregon coming closest in 2014 when it went to the National Championship Game. 

Most remarkably, the Huskies have lost multiple great players from their defense in each of the last two years and it hasn't slowed them down at all. We thought they'd take a big step backwards in 2015 after losing Hau'oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton, both Top-50 NFL Draft picks, and they didn't. Then we thought they might take a step back this year after losing their top two pass rushers, Travis Feeney, Corey Littleton, and others. It didn't happen. 

The Huskies have a great scheme and recruit to it. They've now shown that they develop and prepare players to replace the guys they've lost, and replenish as well as any defense in the Pac-12. 

Washington's scoring defense is tied for first in the league at a stingy 17.9 points per game, and second in yards allowed per play at 4.7, just behind Colorado's 4.6. 

The Huskies are selectively aggressive with their blitzing approach, striking a great balance between pressuring while also not being susceptible to big plays. Part of what enables this is how athletic and assignment sound they are in the secondary. The Huskies have three high level starters in their defensive backfield. But they also play a style that really protects against giving up big passing plays, with a predominance of deeply aligned single high safety looks. 

A great indicator of their style of playing working is how sophomore inside linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria have cleaned up, leading the team with 68 and 55 tackles, respectively. This is the same thing those two players were able to do last year, a sign of their schematic stability and personnel continuity. Victor suffered a broken leg against USC, a big loss that will impact the team both in terms of its zone underneath coverage against the pass, and its run-stopping capability between the tackles. 

Washington uses a dedicated edge rush player who usually works from the boundary, named the Buck linebacker. It's like the Devil backer ASU uses, and has consistently generated a high number of sacks and tackles for loss. It was again this year, but starter Joe Mathis was knocked out for the season a month ago, and the production hasn't been quite as good since. 

What's interesting about how the Huskies play up front is that they use two heavy and physical defensive tackles and then two stand up 2-point defensive ends who are really more like linebacker size. It's an unconventional 40-front that really is more like a two-tackle, four linebacker and five defensive back defense. But the hybrid end/linebackers are physical players who anchor relatively well and don't get run off the ball, which is a big factor in their success.

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, who is a sure-fire all-league player and the best coverage corner we've seen in the Pac-12 North this year. 

The Huskies move their safeties all over the place, but are almost always in a single-high look that is Cover 1 or Cover 3. Their cornerbacks do a good job of not giving away whether they're in zone or man pre-snap, but will often bail from press technique, which can be deceiving to quarterbacks. They handle motions across the formation by trading off at the safety level, with one player rotating back to play center field at 15-18 yards depth which the safety who had been in that position will come down into the box to handle the receiver who has moved from one side to the other. 

Baker really makes the defense go because he enables Washington to call cornerback blitzes or pressure from the box safety in the slot. It's how ASU liked to pressure when it had Damarious Randall at field safety. 

Washington has shown that a team can play a lot of zone defense with zone blitzing and still generate a huge number of turnovers through induced mistakes and not just via physical force. Bierria is all over the place, with better range than probably any starting inside backer in the league, and he's a threat to take the ball away consistently underneath. 

Washington Defensive Personnel

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. 

Elijah Qualls (No. 11) -- At 6-foot-1 and 321 pounds, Qualls is Washington's top defensive tackle. He's very stout and physical, with a great motor. The Huskies will stunt with him, but he's also capable of just bull rushing his way to the quarterback, and blocking him in the run game is a challenge. 

Keishawn Bierria (No. 7) -- A supremely athletic undersized inside linebacker, Bierria has great range as a pass defender and can take the ball away. He's physical for his size but can be overly-aggressive at times, with probing feet against the run. 

Sidney Jones (No. 26) -- Nobody uses the boundary better than Jones among defensive backs in the Pac-12 North. He's great at the line of scrimmage, with strength and balance, is comfortable with his back to the play, and has tremendous ball skills. He's going to be a major challenge for ASU freshman wide out N'Keal Harry.

Taylor Rapp (No. 21) -- A true freshman playing a big role, Rapp is in a lot of single high looks but sometimes has to defend the slot in the alley in man coverage when Washington blitzes. That's a matchup ASU should try to generate and might have an advantage. 

ASU Offense against Washington Defense

The Sun Devils haven't run the football well in any road loss of late, and even in some games at home. That can't continue if ASU's going to have any chance at Washington, a team that is going to score the football for sure. 

Washington is content playing a lower possession game, but ASU can't keep its defense on the field. That means it has to be more successful on first downs. There was a stretch against Utah in which ASU had no gain or a loss on seven of eight first-downs. It's a recipe for certain failure. ASU has to stay on schedule with success, not take nearly as many sacks, tackles for loss and penalties. 

The Huskies have lost their best pass rusher to injury and are not as capable in this regard as Utah and other teams ASU has faced. That should provide more opportunities for sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins, who has to not only avoid negative plays, but also turnovers. ASU has to have 100 percent ball security, which could be tough on the road if it rains. Do that, run the ball reasonably well, and spread it around a bit in the passing game and maybe the Sun Devils can have a solid offensive effort.

Washington's impressive secondary will make it tough though, so ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey will have to try to scheme to generate matchups between ASU's receivers and Taylor Rapp and Victor's replacement at inside linebacker, freshman D.J. Beavers. 

Prediction

ASU's had its way with Washington for a long time but that's likely coming to an end in Seattle this year. Washington schemes to induce defensive mistakes better than any ASU opponent to this point, and ASU's already been deeply flawed with assignment soundness. The Huskies are a clearly better football team on offense and defense, and should win comfortably unless they implode with turnovers and other self-inflicted wounds. My forecast is Washington 51, ASU 20


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