At 3 p.m. on Saturday, California welcome Chris Petersen and Washington to Memorial Stadium for the Bears' Homecoming. What can Cal expect from the new head coach in the Northwest? Dawgman.com's Chris Fetters answers the most burning questions.
Ryan Gorcey: What differentiates the Huskies’ two main running backs – Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington – from one another? What are their running styles, and do they prefer to run inside or outside?
Chris Fetters: Washington is the more explosive of the two, the one that could go the distance if he gets into the open field. Coleman is the one that's probably more consistently productive both inside and outside the tackles. Right now it seems like he's the go-to guy if Chris Petersen and Jonathan Smith want to lean on a particular back to eat clock and pick up first downs. But Washington hasn't really shown the flashes that most expected him to have after he had a couple big games at the end of last year. Ironically enough, even though UW is putting up respectable numbers on the ground, it's not been close to what Husky fans were expecting, especially with such a veteran line leading the way. Petersen has said recently that he believes they are close to getting out of the run game what they expected, so we'll see if that starts to happen Saturday.
RG: Cyler Miles has a ton of arm talent, and, coming in, seemed to be the heir apparent to Keith Price. Have his legs mitigated the need for him to throw, or is that just a part of Chris Petersen’s offense?
CF: I'm not sure if mitigated is the right word; much like Price early in his career Miles likes to take off if his first read isn't there. He's getting better at stepping up through the pocket to keep plays alive - both with his feet and looking downfield - but too many times he gets flushed out to the right side, where he usually just chucks the ball away. It's hard to fault his decision-making too much at this point since he hasn't thrown a pick yet - but I know UW fans are frustrated by the lack of a downfield passing game. And that comes down to Cyler not trusting his reads, hanging long enough in the pocket, and generally not keeping his eyes up and scanning when he's flushed out. When defenses have taken him off his spot, it's pretty much run or else at that point.
RG: How has the program’s identity changed since Petersen came on board this past offseason?
CF: That's the biggest question at this point, and also the hardest to answer - because no one outside the program gets to see behind the curtain. Petersen is intensely protective of his process and how he does things. We constantly hear about 'process' and how that is taking precedence over results as of now, but it's very hard to connect an identity to just what is seen on the field. We know a lot has changed in terms of their strength and conditioning, and nutrition. We hear all the time from the players about how things are a lot more detailed than they were last year. But, unlike Sonny Dykes - where there seems to be a clear lineage and understanding of where he's coming from offensively in terms of identity, philosophy, etc... it's hard to really see where Petersen is coming from, other than what he did at Boise State. But even then, he was taking over and building on what he had learned from Dan Hawkins, et al... People forget that Washington is still his first true job where he's building from scratch, which adds a little bit to the confusion from the outside looking in. Most UW fans saw 9-4 coming back with and OL and DL loaded with talent and veteran leadership, and expected Petersen to just build on Sarkisian's foundation. Instead, he's kind of torn it up and installed a lot of new processes within the program - and I think that says as much about what Sark left as it does what Petersen is hoping to accomplish. To be fair, I think some of the new UW coaches were surprised at how much needed to be blown up. I think we are also seeing something play out with Dykes and Cal that UW fans may see in year two under Petersen in 2015, namely the idea of how much improvement can be made from year one to year two. Only difference is that at Cal it needed to be blown up.
RG: Shaq Thompson is obviously a sore name among most Cal fans, but he’s been doing a little bit of everything for the Huskies this season. How exactly has his role expanded?
CF: How hasn't it expanded? Obviously with the Myles Jack thing last year people think that's what Petersen is trying to do with Shaq, but Cal fans know how good Shaq was offensively in high school and I felt it was just a matter of time before this experiment took hold. The one thing he isn't doing that he did in the past is the return game, which is being handled by the smaller, faster skill players. But in terms of the cover teams and running the ball on top of his linebacking chores (and now even some safety in jumbo/red zone packages), there's a lot on Shaq's plate - but Petersen continues to insist that Shaq can handle it, and is handling all that's being asked of him.
RG: The Bears were in it until the end for John Ross, but he wound up picking the Huskies at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl last December. It’s certainly worked out well for him, particularly on special teams. What’s allowed the staff to trust him so early?
CF: Well, he's got unique speed and ability to make plays. And ultimately it's also showing up in practice. He's had two returns for scores brought back by penalty, so that's something they have to clean up in order to be competitive on the road. But when it comes down to it, the coaches have two responsibilities: 1) Get the players prepared the best they can to compete every week; and 2) Put the best players out there they have available in positions to be successful. While they haven't used Ross nearly as much as UW fans want them too, he's also been a bit nicked up too. But whether it's in the return game, or as a receiver out wide or in motion getting handoffs, Ross is the most explosive player Washington has right now. And even though guys like Jaydon Mickens and Marvin Hall can be just as effective in the receiving game at times, they haven't shown the explosiveness Ross possesses. He's a difference-maker that way.
RG: With narrow wins over Hawaii and Eastern Washington, sizeable wins over Illinois and Georgia State and a narrow loss to Stanford, which Washington team can we expect on Saturday? It seems like there hasn’t been one consistent thread through those games to outside observers.
CF: Well, to famously (at least up here) quote one of UW's old coaches, Tyrone Willingham - your eyes are as good as mine. It's the $64 question, isn't it? They've only been on the road once so far, and looked FAR from convincing against Hawaii. And now they travel to Berkeley to face arguably the best quarterback in the league with at least two starting true frosh in the secondary? Not exactly the recipe Petersen would have ideally dialed up, but UW has shown they can win shootouts too. I can tell you the Washington that needs to show up in order to be competitive against the top team in the North needs to chew lots of clock offensively, convert touchdowns in the red zone, keep everything in front of them defensively, and win the turnover battle by at least two. I think those things are mandatory.
RG: It’s been quite a while since Washington’s been on the road (the Huskies have spent their last four games in Seattle), and they have quite a gauntlet coming up after Berkeley, with Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Arizona coming up in four of the next five weeks. It’s a back-loaded schedule not unlike Cal’s. What are the expectations for that stretch, and how big does the Cal game loom in determining what the Huskies do over the next month?
CF: It's much like the question before. If UW had an identity fans could lean on, there might be a sense one way or the other about how things will go. But that, coupled with the fact that NO ONE knows how the Pac-12 is going to finish up - hell, you had every away team win last week! - it truly is going to be a week-by-week thing for the Huskies going forward. And frankly, that's exactly how Petersen wants it. He doesn't want them thinking ahead. He wants them getting better every single day, buying into his process 100 percent, and allowing it to function. As far as how big the Cal game looms, it's huge - especially given where UW could be right now if they had pulled out a win against Stanford. Every win from here on out reinforces Petersen's process and also gets them that much closer to bowl eligibility. I believe most Pac-12 fans look at their own teams and see where they could win every game left on their schedule, or they could lose every game. Parity has come to the Pac-12, and it's created some incredible football so far this year, and I don't expect that to stop Saturday. I could see UW winning by 10 in Berkeley; I could also see them losing by three touchdowns without Cal breaking a sweat. It's posed on a knife-edge like never before.