Chris Fetters of Dawgman.com was good enough to join us this week to go in-depth with Washington as the Huskies ready to host California, with both teams coming into this Saturday on season-long skids.
BearTerritory: How has the passing of Don James affected the coaching staff, players and program, and how much of that emotion do you think carries into this week's tilt?
Chris Fetters: I think it's affected the coaches more than the players, and the fans more than anyone else. I definitely think the emotion of James' passing will be reflected in the game, but I think the embarrassment handed out at Arizona State is more on their minds than the Dawgfather's passing. Sark got to know the James family well since he came to Seattle, and I know he wants to mark this occasion with an effort and game-plan execution worthy of a Don James-coached team. As a quick aside, I think it's unbelievably cool that coach Dykes and the California program have decided to join Washington in wearing a DJ decal on their helmets. It's a classy move that I know is much appreciated.
BT: Cal went through an early-season stretch where it faced then-No. 22 Northwestern, then-No. 4 Ohio State, then-No. 2 Oregon and No. 12 UCLA in the first six weeks. Obviously, it didn't go too well. Washington has gone through a gauntlet of its own in recent weeks, with three straight losses to Stanford, the Ducks and Arizona State, allowing an average of 43 points per game. If you could peg down a few causes for that slide, what would they be?
CF: One - and this is the most obvious one - they played good teams. Good teams are going to exploit weaknesses and mistakes, and all three teams did that. Secondly, Washington has shown that they aren't mentally tough enough yet to compete with teams of that quality week-in and week-out. Maybe once every 3-4 games, but not back-to-back-to-back. Sarkisian has not gone through a season at UW without at least a three-game slide, and it just happened again - which has caused UW fans scurrying to their keyboards saying Sark can't possibly be the answer.
BT: Last year, Keith Price saw his passer rating dip from 161.9 in 2011 to 122.4, and took a career-high 37 sacks. This year, he's back to his old self, completing 64.5% of his passes, with 14 touchdowns to just four picks. What's contributed the most to his resurgence?
CF: First, Keith is a fifth-year senior and he's put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this season. The way the Huskies finished 2012 really stuck in everyone's craw, but especially with Price. Because of his preparation, Price is playing with more confidence, which is spilling over to the rest of the offense. Secondly - Washington is running up-tempo, which is helping Keith get rid of the ball in high-percentage situations. The Huskies, because of the offense they are running, are typically going to the short pass first, and then look to go over the top or find the intermediate routes. That lends itself to shorter passes being completed, but less big-chunk plays, which is something Sarkisian wants more of.
BT: How much can Price's bounce back be attributed to having such an elite runner like Bishop Sankey back there with him to take some pressure off?
CF: At least until Saturday - Sankey was playing at an All-American level, which has really taken a lot of the burden off Price to have to move the ball downfield on his own. All Price has had to do is try and distribute the passes and keep the offense balanced to let the other skill players make their plays. Sankey is also dangerous out of the backfield, so that just adds one more weapon to UW's arsenal.
BT: The Huskies rank at the top of the conference in pass defense (194.5 ypg), but are dead last in rushing defense (183.7 ypg). Granted, Cal has almost as large a disparity between passing offense (third) and rushing offense (10th), but what's behind the struggles Tosh Lupoi's unit has had against the run? Is it a case of the rat going through the snake, having faced Oregon and the Cardinal, or something more?
CF: I think a lot of it has to do with Washington playing very good rush offenses, but when the last four quarterbacks the Huskies have faced accounted for 265 yards (Denker, Hogan, Mariota and Taylor Kelly), that's also a big part of the problem. The Huskies just haven't done that well when plays break down…they call it keeping the quarterback 'in the cage'. The cage has had a lot of holes in it to date. And Arizona State rushing for 317 yards had as much to do with the UW defense having to be on the field for nearly 40 minutes as ASU running well. With an offense running 93 plays, at some point the dam was going to burst.
BT: How much of a sense do you get that the Washington defense is licking its chops, going against what's been a pass-heavy offense (playing to the Huskies' strength) and an anemic running game, with either an uncertain true freshman (Jared Goff), or an inexperienced redshirt freshman (Zach Kline) back of center?
CF: I don't get much of a sense of that at all, to be honest. At this point, coming back to Seattle with their tails between their legs…and this year Sarkisian has repeated the mantra of 'process' from the very beginning, and how the opponent was nameless and faceless. 'Anyone, any time, anywhere' has also been the mantra - so if I'm to work toward a logical conclusion I suspect the Huskies are game-planning for the offense and aren't too concerned if it's Goff or Kline under center - because I doubt the offense will get called much differently based on the quarterback in the game. The UW coaches would tell you that, with all that went on this past weekend this upcoming Saturday is a lot more about them righting the ship than it is about Cal.
BT: The Bears' offensive line has been fairly dreadful thus far, particularly after the losses of starting right guard Matt Cochran and starting center Chris Adcock. Speedy edge rushers have been the bane of that unit over the past two games, and new center Mark Brazinski has struggled blocking in the middle. What do the Huskies bring up front that could cause them problems?
CF: Danny Shelton is the big man in the middle, and when he's motivated to play he can really be a handful. The Huskies getting Hauoli Kikaha (formerly Jamora) back from two years lost due to knee injuries has been a real godsend. Those two are the main protagonists up front, and Justin Wilcox will mix in blitzes from all over to help supplement the pass rush. If the tackles are Cal's liability up front, guys like Josh Shirley, Cory Littleton, and Marcus Farria might have some success too, but their impact has been marginal up to now. Littleton is the main starter at the RUSH position for UW, but he isn't usually asked to be a consistent rusher.
Q&A: It's Been a Dawg Day's Night
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