QUESTION: For the first time since 2003, this most likely is the year that the Washington leaves the Oregon-Washington game the winner. While the game is huge to fans, what are the player’s thought on the contest; is it the big game of the year, or just another contest on the way to a very special season?
ANSWER: Great question, and I would love to be able to give you an answer based on the players’ thoughts - but they weren’t made available this week.
This move has precedent: Chris Petersen has done this for Apple Cups as well.
Petersen cited the players having ‘a lot on their plate’, including practice, the beginning of the fall quarter, etc… and then told the reporters they already had plenty to write about.
But I can certainly speculate on what I would expect them to say based on the responses they had during Stanford week, for instance, when apparently they didn’t have enough going on to talk to us.
This group has been pretty spot on with regard to staying within the talking points and evading the dreaded bulletin board material. They would say this is just another business trip and it’s game six on the schedule and they won’t treat this as a game that’s different from any other.
And to be fair, it shouldn’t be to them. ‘The Streak’ is for the fans and those in each program that have been around long enough to feel its impact. But for the players, Washington is still generally young enough to not have that many that have suffered through four losses to Oregon.
I would say those that have, like Jake Eldrenkamp, Shane Brostek, Damion Turpin and Psalm Wooching, would privately be telling the rest of the team how much it would mean to cap off their Washington careers with a win at Oregon. The fifth year guys would, obviously, be carrying just a little extra motivation.
But again, since we didn’t get a chance to talk to them, we’ll never know, at least until next week when we get to talk to them. And even then that’s not a guarantee since it’s a BYE week and Petersen could cite a need for them to focus on school and whatever else he thinks is more important than handling media obligations. And that list is lengthy.
QUESTION: Jake Browning seems to have really matured since last year at Husky Stadium when the Ducks managed to put a lot of pressure on him. While Browning is year older, so too is the offensive line that protects him. What has been so special about the Dawgs up front?
ANSWER: The cliché answer is that they simply keep improving and building skill and gelling as a unit. But in truth, it was really hard to gauge improvement early on based on the level of competition in Washington’s non-conference schedule.
The line - Trey Adams, Jake Eldrenkamp, Coleman Shelton, Shane Brostek, and Kaleb McGary - have started every game so far this season, and that continuity is the foundation for great offensive line play. Staying healthy is step one, but they’ve also been able to avoid the nicks and dings that forced Adams out of action for a few games last year, for instance.
And they’ve been able to rise to the challenge that’s been put in front of them. After having modest run numbers going into the Arizona game, the task was to emphasize the run game in the desert. Washington finished with 352 yards.
Against Stanford, the job was to create enough push to create a sustainable run game, while at the same time be physical enough in pass protection to keep Jake Browning’s jersey clean and his mind sound. The Huskies finished with 214 yards rushing and 210 yards passing. That’s balance! And they were able to push Stanford’s defensive front around. They bullied the bully.
Now they have to go back out on the road and prove that their performance against the Cardinal wasn’t a fluke.
QUESTION: The Husky defensive front just keep playing hard and looks like the most aggressive we’ve seen in a long while. What has the Husky coaching staff done to develop so many good defensive linemen?
ANSWER: I think there are a few points to this. First, it starts with recruiting. They’ve recruited great athletes that have been able to develop physically under the supervision of Strength and Conditioning Coach Tim Socha. He’s gotten all these guys bigger, faster, and stronger during their time at UW.
Secondly, they’ve maximized that talent. Every year that Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has been at UW, they’ve had a senior step up and do damage after left on the scrap heap by the previous staff. In 2014 it was Andrew Hudson. Last year it was Tani Tupou, who finished with second-team All-Pac-12 honors. It’s doubtful this year that Damion Turpin will resurrect his career to the level of those two, but he’s playing a lot and having an impact.
Third, the depth that Kwiatkowski and first year DL Coach Ikaika Malloe have been able to develop is paying off. Ten of the 12 defensive linemen Washington has have played this year, and the only two that haven’t - Levi Onwuzurike and Ryan Bowman - are true frosh redshirting.
This group, who start out in an odd front, can legitimately go six deep with minimal drop-off. That offers flexibility and depth to be able to rotate in shifts, which they will have to do against an Oregon offense that thrives on tempo and not allowing defenses many chances to situationally substitute.
QUESTION: Everybody knows about John Ross, but what are the particularly special things he does that makes him such a difference maker?
ANSWER: Speed, speed, and speed. It’s that simple. When Oregon fans look at Charles Nelson, that’s what Washington fans see in John Ross. Like Nelson, Ross spent some time on defense to fill a need. And like Nelson, Ross was brought back to offense when given a chance to do so. That’s where he is in his element, and it’s showing this year.
What has taken Ross’s game to the next level is his commitment to becoming a technician at the receiver position. He dedicated himself to becoming a better route runner, and that has paid off handsomely. So before he was able to create explosive plays simply with his immense physical gifts, but when he couldn’t create space with his speed he was ineffective. Now he’s able to get separation downfield with his technique when speed alone doesn’t cut it. That’s a dangerous combination.
QUESTION: Finally, Husky fans have waited a long time for this day to come – ending the streak. What sort of reaction do you think Dawgfans will have if they beat Oregon at Autzen?
ANSWER: First, the game hasn’t been played yet so it’s premature to chalk this up as a surefire win for UW. But if they are able to win at Autzen for the first time since 2003 I think the reaction of Washington fans will fall into two categories.
We’ll call the first group the Dave ‘Softy’ Mahler group: They will cry like five-year olds and probably get magnificently drunk and claim the season over and a resounding success. Beating Oregon has been the only thing they’ve cared about for the entirety of the streak, and the rivalry with the Ducks has long surpassed any hatred they ever had for Washington State. A win Saturday night would erase the culmination of 12 painful years, and they’ll be happy to tell you all about it.
The second group, we’ll call them the blue hairs. They’ll be equally as giddy and will privately proudly parade around in their underwear and toast the win with a nice bottle of scotch, but publicly they’ll post passive-aggressive missives and talk about ‘having been there before’ so they think they have to act like they’ve been there before. They won’t go overboard, but since they’ve swallowed gallons of Petersen-infused purple Kool Aid they will also regurgitate all the main talking points. It’s just game six; One game at a time; The most important game now is against BYE, etc… Yada, yada, yada.
But again, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Win the game, and it’s obvious the reaction of UW fans will be one mixed with relief, excitement, and a look ahead toward their ultimate aim - winning the conference title and perhaps sneaking their way into the playoff conversation.