Utah hosts Washington on Saturday in what is shaping up to be the game of the year in the Pac-12. UteZone caught up with Washington insider Chris Fetters of Dawgman.com to get an insider's perspective of what to expect from the Huskies.
USA Today Sports
Know your foe: Washington
It was clear that coming out of high school, Jake Browning had a chance to be special. He's been just that this season. What are his strengths and weaknesses as a quarterback? What do the Utes need to do to slow him down?
His strengths are based in his preparation. He’s the football equivalent of a gym rat. His film study has become a bit legendary around the UW Football offices. As far as on the field, Chris Petersen has told us time and time again he looks for two things out of a quarterback: accuracy and decision-making. As long as they are really accurate and make great decisions, he can work with the rest. You saw that at Boise State with Kellen Moore, for instance. And Jake Browning is a right handed, more athletic Kellen Moore. His understanding of the offense is such that now he has a lot of control over what he can change at the line of scrimmage. That’s one of the biggest things that has helped him this year.
As far as weaknesses, he’s not an athletic dynamo. He’s not going to out-run anyone, and he’s not going to try and tuck it and run at every opportunity like a true dual-threat QB. And he doesn’t have a super-strong arm. So most of his shortcomings are strictly physical, although he’s a better athlete than given credit.
To slow Browning down, you have to do what any defensive line has to do with an accurate, savvy signal-caller: you have to get him off his spot and uncomfortable. Constant pressure will eventually rattle even the most poised players. And Browning isn’t immune. He is human, despite the fact that his numbers imply something slightly to the contrary.
How do you expect the Washington offense to attack the Utah defense? How prominent will the run game play into the gameplan?
The run game will always be a focus, even if it doesn’t necessarily show up right away. The Huskies knew Oregon State would try and take away the run by stacking the box, thus forcing Browning to attack the one-on-one matchups in the secondary. That created mixed results, but when the Huskies hit, they hit big.
I truly don’t think they’ll treat Utah’s defense any different than they treated Stanford’s defense, for instance. They know the Utes are stout up front and have been very efficient in creating turnovers, so they’ll try and remain as balanced as possible, use the run to set up the pass, and then try and beat Utah with some play-action. The one thing Washington does have going for them is they’ve been very successful running and passing this year, so opponents can’t just sit on one piece and hope the other falls apart.
What has made the Washington defense so effective this season? What are the weaknesses that you expect Utah to try to exploit?
The Huskies have strength in numbers defensively, and that’s allowed them to stay fresh and build skill along the defensive line, linebacking corps and in the secondary. The last two games UW has played 64 players both times, compared to 50 and 58, respectively, for Utah. They are extremely stout up front, with three 310-plus defensive linemen, experienced with all four of their linebacker positions, and have arguably one of the top defensive back groups in all of college football. That’s a potent combination. When you’re No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 2 in total defense and No. 1 in pass defense, there’s not a lot to pick apart.
Yes, the Huskies are in the middle of the conference when it comes to run defense, but I think there are legitimate reasons to mitigate those numbers, like the number of snaps played by backups that will understandably give up a lot more yards than the starters. For instance, Oregon State ran for 177 total yards, but only 33 yards by halftime. Oregon ran for 230 total yards, but only 73 by halftime.
But the biggest reason they’ve been so effective? They’ve avoided the injury bug. Until Joe Mathis’s injury last week, the only one to the defense of any consequence was in fall camp, when backup ILB Sean Constantine was ruled out for the season. That’s it. Mathis is a key ingredient to the Huskies’ success so far this year, but Connor O’Brien has proved to be a capable backup. O’Brien is not as explosive or as physical a presence as Mathis, but he is experienced.
So as far as weaknesses that Utah can exploit, there aren’t many. In truth, the Huskies have done a nice job of closing teams out early. Outside of the Arizona game, the starters haven’t really been tested much past halftime of any game they’ve played. So the blueprint for Utah should be to do what they’ve been good at so far the last couple games, which is milk the clock by sustaining drives and keeping Washington’s offense off the field.
Washington's biggest test so far this season was a squeaker on the road against a mediocre Arizona team. What did the Wildcats do that was so problematic for the Huskies? What can the Utes do to create similar problems?
Simply put, Arizona Quarterback Brandon Dawkins made life very difficult for UW. He ran for 179 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown where OLB Psalm Wooching had him in the backfield, but couldn’t get him on the ground. He also had a 56-yard run late that helped Arizona score a touchdown and a 54-yard pass where UW DL Vita Vea literally had him dead to rights but also couldn’t get him fully tackled. Dawkins took advantage and was able to complete the pass on a drive that would eventually tie the game with 17 seconds left to play. But unlike BYU versus Utah, Arizona kicked the PAT to send it to overtime, and the rest is history.
Troy Williams is averaging 18 yards a game on the ground. Ironically from UW’s point of view, his best running game to date is 16 carries for 73 yards versus Arizona. If he could replicate that production Saturday, it could go a long way toward the Huskies not focusing all their efforts on stopping Joe Williams. If UW can limit Joe Williams’s productivity, it would force Troy Williams to beat them through the air. And that’s has not been a winning recipe for teams playing Washington to date.
How do you expect the Huskies to react to what is expected to be a hostile crowd? Given the fact that Oregon is so dreadful this season, does their experience at Autzen translate to what they can expect at Rice-Eccles Stadium?
It can if they get off to a good start. And they have all season long, out-scoring teams 100-7 the first quarter and 200-24 by halftime. In Eugene, the Huskies forced a fumble on the opening kickoff (Oregon recovered), and then picked off true frosh Justin Herbert on the very first play of the game. That set the tone. If UW can force Troy Williams into some early mistakes and then capitalize on those mistakes - they’ve scored 69 points on 18 takeaways - it could be a repeat of previous games. Autzen can get loud, and even when Oregon was down 21 in the first quarter they still tried to make noise. But by halftime the crowd was a non-factor.
What is your prediction for the game, including the score?
I know Troy Williams is geeked up for this game, but how will that show up when the bullets start flying? Will he try too hard to make plays? Will he settle down right away? How will he react? I expect Utah to go to Joe Williams early to calm things down and keep Washington’s offense off the field. But can the Utes sustain the game plan? Can Troy Williams make plays when down and distance situations get flipped against them? That’s the key. So far Utah is tenth in the league in third down conversions. Washington is first. Conversely, UW and Utah are much close in third down conversion defense - second and fourth, respectively.
I have a feeling the Huskies will try and impose themselves physically, but will they be able to sustain drives in a hostile environment? In most of their runaway games this year they’ve had a chunk play early that settled the nerves and established a rhythm. And it was usually courtesy of John Ross or Dante Pettis.
Utah should give Washington their most physical test to date. It should be a slugfest. But UW has the depth, especially on defense, to keep coming at the Utes. And as always, the fundamental tenants apply: win the turnover battle, run the ball and stop the run.
The Huskies won’t stop Joe Williams, but they can limit his effectiveness. In the end, Troy Williams wanted this game, and UW is going to make sure if Utah ends up winning, it’ll be because he beat them.
I don’t think that will happen. As good as he was at the end of the USC game, Washington’s defense is better, and deeper.
My prediction is Washington by 14. UW 28-14.
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