Know your foe – Washington Huskies

Devils Digest invited its Sparky's Huddle members to pose questions to editor, Chris Fetters, concerning the Sun Devils' next opponent the Washington Huskies. How different is this Huskies team from 2008? What are the reasons for the team's improvement this season? Which player has been the biggest surprise this year? Fetters answers those questions and many more in this article.

(from BurnningBeer) What has Steve Sarkisian done to so quickly change the Huskies from the winless 2008 squad to a team that is playing much better football and beating the likes of USC in 2009? Would you attribute it more to game time strategy, player motivation, or just the "new coach" bump?

FETTERS: He's done a lot to change the culture of the program with his energy, enthusiasm and belief in the system that he brought up with him from USC. And as they continue to see some successes - like the USC win - it's helping to validate their approach with the players, which in turn means the players are buying in more and more to what this staff it trying to do. Certainly some of it has to do with what they've done with Jake Locker to make him a more well-rounded player, and they've taken pride in being able to keep teams from scoring touchdowns in the red zone. And when you can limit teams to three points instead of seven each trip, it keeps you in games.

(from maddogkf) What is the biggest difference between the current coaching staff and the previous coaching staff?

FETTERS: I think it starts from the top, when it comes to Steve Sarkisian he is remarkably open and honest about what they are doing and how they are going to go about doing it. He's a lot different than Tyrone Willingham in that regard. In many ways Willingham would insulate issues and try to internalize a lot of what was going on, but Sarkisian acknowledges things and addresses them with the team head-on. He doesn't shy away from anything, and it's been a very refreshing change. His assistants follow his lead, and their energy and enthusiasm is pretty infectious. Their relative age also means they don't mind getting on the road and recruiting hard.

(from Beat UofA) Did Willingham leave more talent behind than previously assumed or is the coaching staff doing it with smoke and mirrors right now until the team is stocked again?

FETTERS: I think it's a little of both. There have been players who have had their careers resurrected by Sarkisian - like E.J. Savannah and Chris Izbicki - and they have some talent. But this staff is also having to do a lot with a little, especially when you add the injury factor into the equation. For instance, UW played two safeties against Arizona that had not started all year long, and one was a true freshman (Nathan Fellner). They had their left guard go down, and their replacement was a kid who moved to the OL from DT a month ago (Nick Wood). Senio Kelemete, their right guard, is having a solid year, but he was playing on the DT a year ago. Second-string RB Johri Fogerson was a safety last year.

So the staff did a thorough job evaluating the talent they had at their disposal before spring camp opened, and looked at what they felt these players could do well in the new offensive and defensive systems. So it's been a real mishmash, but it's worked alright so far.

(from lilldevil) What has been the biggest change you have seen in Jake Locker's play at QB and what do they think is the main contributor to those change or changes?

FETTERS: Obviously the biggest change is the fact that Jake just isn't taking off at the first moment he feels any pressure closing in. He'll step or slide, or move around the pocket, but he won't be doing it to run. He's now doing it to bide time to continue to scan the field and see if any receivers have gotten open. And again, it's obvious who the main contributor is. It's Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian has had a lot of his quarterbacks make it into the NFL, and he knows what the pros are looking for. He knows Locker has the tools; now it's time to put it all together into a package that will ensure success at the next level, while at the same time help give the Huskies their best chance to have offensive success.

Everyone knows Jake can beat you with his feet, as Arizona saw Saturday. But with him now putting the passing game in front of his scrambling, he's even more dangerous than ever. And I know he's got a fan in Dennis Erickson, who just called Jake the best college QB right now in America.

(from HodeASU) Which player or position has been the biggest surprise so far and which player or position has been the biggest disappointment?

FETTERS: I think the biggest surprise hasn't been just one position - it's been one player. Chris Polk was hailed as the answer the moment he stepped on campus because he shunned USC to attend UW (I know ASU fans probably feel the same way about Vontaze Burfict). But Polk got hurt in the second game last year and redshirted. People still had high expectations coming into this year, but he has blown those expectations out of the water. He was always a good running back, but he's shown himself to be the complete package; pass-catcher, blocker, etc… And the biggest thing is that he's shown a toughness and physicality that has even surprised his coaches. Since UW really hasn't used another RB besides Polk, I guess you can say the running back spot has been a pleasant surprise.

As far as disappointment, I'd have to say defensive line. They weren't supposed to be QB killers or anything to begin with, but they were supposed to be a smart, tough, active, veteran line that has turned out to be nothing more than just one guy (Daniel Te'o-Nesheim) and his entourage. Te'o-Nesheim is a great player and his motor never stops. The only problem is, he's been the only one the defense has been able to count on. Alameda Ta'amu is the big guy inside, and while he's done well to clog things in the middle, he's been disappointing as a pass rusher. The same can be said of Cameron Elisara.

The other DE, whether it's been senior Darrion Jones, sophomore Kalani Aldrich or true frosh Talia Crichton, just hasn't gotten the job done at all. It's hard to really knock them too much, because for as bad as they've been in the open field, they've been nails in the red zone. But there's really no reason their effort and ability can't be used on all parts of the field, and I definitely know it's a big sense of frustration for UW DC Nick Holt.

(From gamble9) Given ASU's less than stellar offense, Do they think Washington will have a conservative offensive game plan this week so that they prevent ASU's defense giving the ASU offense a short field due to a turnover?

FETTERS: I don't think so. UW expects ASU's defense, especially their front seven, to be very aggressive and very physical and to try and take the game to UW. It's not in Sarkisian's nature to be passive; the key will be for the Huskies to be smart and aggressive, rather than reckless. They need to get the ball out of Locker's hands quickly to his playmakers, and obviously they need to hold onto the ball. They got rolled in the second half at Stanford, and the coaches were not too pleased with the team's effort. That was rectified at Notre Dame in that epic game, so it seems like the staff is happier with how the team is playing on the road, but the fact is UW still hasn't won on the road. They still have yet to conquer that demon. If they turn the ball over in Tempe, they'll lose. It's that simple. And that can happen even with a conservative game plan.

(From ASUBoy91) Since the Huskies had such an improbable and emotional win at home last Saturday against the Wildcats, is there any concern of a "letdown" from a preparation or emotional standpoint leading into this week's game? Has Coach Sarkisian addressed this at all this week?

FETTERS: I'm sure they've addressed it, but one thing he said in his coach's show Tuesday night is that when the team had their meeting on Monday, the mood was very serious. And that wasn't something he created; that was on the players. His point was that the UA win underscored something, and he thinks the team is now starting to look ahead and they realize what they are capable of achieving. They see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and a lot of those players have been in darkness for years. They are hungry for more wins. It's not to say an emotional letdown can't happen, but I'm pretty sure if UW does lose, Sarkisian isn't going to point to an emotional letdown being the cause.

(from billatronic) The turnaround by Washington has been remarkable. Aside from the obvious of coaching and the return of Jake Locker, what has brought this improvement? Is it a bunch of new players contributing, previous starters with now, more experience or something else?

FETTERS: Well, they've been able to keep everything in front of them defensively and have done well to eliminate the big play. By playing tough in the red zone, they've held teams to field goals instead of touchdowns, and that has kept them in games and given the offense opportunities to win games. Offensively Locker has distributed the ball to a lot of receivers, and Chris Polk has been very effective as the Huskies' lead back. Erik Folk has been basically automatic with field goals, and they have a positive turnover ratio, with three of their turnovers going for touchdowns.

(from hosbreadfan) Are you surprised that ASU is currently a six-point favorite in this game?

FETTERS: Not at all. ASU's defense is very, very good and UW has not won on the road yet. UW's offense is going to have to show they can deal with arguably the fastest front four they'll face all year long. That's going to be a tough task, especially for an offensive line that's a little banged up. UW will need to win the turnover battle, play good red zone defense and capitalize offensively when given a chance. I don't expect it to be a high-scoring game.

(from Reeddevil) UW fans are obviously very familiar with Coach Erickson, What is the general perception there of the job that he had done so far with ASU?

FETTERS: Generally speaking, I think most look to what DE did at Oregon State, and the fact that the Beavers were always the most penalized team in the league when he was in Corvallis. Clearly he loves an aggressive style of play, and sometimes his guys cross the line. That being said, I don't think that's been nearly as big a problem at ASU than it was at OSU, but am I surprised ASU leads the conference right now in penalty yardage? No.

But overall, I think UW fans have a very high opinion of DE in general and what he's been able to accomplish, especially since he's from Everett, but I'm also pretty sure most are surprised he hasn't found sustained success at ASU. He sure started out there like a house on fire.

(from HodeASU) What in your opinion are the keys for a Washington victory this week?

FETTERS: Win the turnover battle, solid special teams, red zone execution on both sides of the ball, and balance on offense. If ASU can force the Huskies into just being a passing team, they'll win. If Polk, Locker and the rest can find a way to make more than the 1.7 yards per carry the Sun Devils are currently allowing, it can open up some things for them. If they can't, it could be a long night for UW.

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