Illinois Gives UW a Glimpse Into the Future

Shaq Thompson said he’d never done it before. Ever. After the Washington Huskies had comprehensively opened a can on the shell-shocked Illinois Fighting Illini Saturday - and really, they should take the ‘Fighting’ part out for the foreseeable future - the junior linebacker confided he’d done something on the football field for the first time Saturday.

“Nope, never done it before,” Thompson said with a wide smile, referring to his two defensive touchdowns scored in the 44-19 rout, one that would have gotten much more out of control had the Huskies decided to continue their aggressive offensive play instead of taking the pass pretty much out of the equation the second half.

Up 14-3, his 36-yard pick-six off beleaguered Wes Lunt seemed to be the fuse to light Washington’s pigskin pyrotechnics, and his 52-yard scoop-and-score after senior defensive end Andrew Hudson had separated the ball from Lunt really put the Illini in a deep freeze on an ideal day for football at Husky Stadium.

The score was 35-5 at that point in the game - 10:33 left to halftime, to be exact. In the second half, UW quarterback Cyler Miles threw three passes before he was subbed out for Troy Williams with 4:31 left in the game. The Huskies put the breaks on big-time for the second half, but it wasn’t necessarily intentional.

“I thought maybe we could do a few more things there,” Huskies Head Coach Chris Petersen said post-game. I thought first half offensively we were fairly efficient. Little disappointed we stagnated in the second half.”

That might be one of the few criticisms in a game where the Huskies did just about everything well. Miles did cough up the ball once - Washington’s first turnover of the season - and he admitted that was on him. But other than that and some sloppy play with penalties that could have bumped up the score even more, it’s hard to find fault with a UW performance that could provide some insight as to what a Petersen-coached team looks like in the not-so-distant future.

For one thing, it’s become pretty clear that their mantra of coming back to work Monday isn’t just fancy sloganeering; most of the things that plagued them the week before against Eastern Washington had been fixed. The hands to the face penalties were gone, their fixes to give a young secondary were surprisingly effective - especially given the news that their other starting cornerback Jermaine Kelly would be lost for most of the year with a fractured ankle.

The irony there was the lone senior in the secondary, Travell Dixon, was the one who played the most like a true frosh - and the frosh were the ones that held everything together like seasoned vets. Sidney Jones was rock solid at one side, while Darren Gardenhire and Naijiel Hale did a very good job when it was clear Dixon couldn’t keep it together.

“Sidney, I just liked his demeanor,”Petersen said of Jones. “We’ve liked his demeanor since he got here. He’s just a competitor. You can almost predict a little bit of success just based on their demeanor and how they go about competing and how they step up in practice and what they look like pre-game and all those things. I knew he would play well today. Doesn’t mean you’re going to make all the plays, but I knew he’d play well. I think he’ll continue to make good progress. ”

With only those four holding down the fort at cornerback, could we see John Ross back there like we did at the end of 2013? There’s no doubt Ross needs touches; out of the nine offensive plays where he’s had the ball in his hands so far this season, four have ended up in the end zone - and he should have had his first kickoff return for six of the season if it hadn’t been for an illegal block penalty on Travis Feeney.

Secondly, you started to see the balance that Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith is looking for in his offense. While they were going full steam the first three quarters, Washington had 193 yards on the ground and 219 through the air. That’s balance - and it’s not as if they were really going pass first; UW had 46 carries and 20 pass attempts by that point. Those numbers point to two things Petersen likes to do offensively; control offense through the run and score via explosive pass plays.

“If we can run the ball and they are having to commit guys in the box to stop you you’re going to be able to get people behind the secondary,”said Petersen. “You’d like to be able to eat some clock and get some chunk runs and hang on to the ball when we’re up-tempo. When we want to do everything up-tempo our defense is on the field too much. But you want to be able to hit those shot plays. It’s too hard of a game to have to go 12 and 15 plays all the time and settle for field goals and all those things. The combination, we had a little bit of that, and that was good to see.”

The idea of building quality depth wasn’t just something Petersen thinks about during garbage time. After all, how can meaningless reps during mop-up time truly translate into experience that comes in handy later when the lights are brightest? To that end, Sifa Tufunga took a lot of reps at right guard in the middle of the game spelling James Atoe. Atoe would come back in briefly in the fourth quarter, but Petersen is sticking by the notion of giving guys their due if they are doing everything right during the week.

“I said from the start, we’d like to play a lot of guys,”said Petersen. “O-line coaches usually don’t want to do that because they get their five guys…I think when guys deserve to be played, keep building depth and the competition - all those things are good.”

Before we jump too far ahead - Illinois was crap. Perhaps they went in the tank a little early due to the piling on of points, but Lunt came in to the game with the reputation of being a big-time gunslinger and left Husky Stadium with slumped shoulders and burnt thumbs. With Lunt effectively neutralized and no run game to speak of, Illinois allowed Washington to pin their ears back and go to town with Danny Shelton and Hauoli Kikaha leading the way.

“He’s good,”Petersen said of Kikaha, who had three sacks on the day. “He’s good at rushing that passer. We need to have him keep doing that. Maybe he’s tired of Danny getting all the headlines, so he stepped his game up a little bit.”

The coaches definitely stepped their games up too, and Petersen knows that’s arguably the biggest thing for this team moving forward. They are the new kids in town, and to get the team to totally buy in, they have to prove their worth.

“It’s on our shoulders a little bit to earn these guys’ trust and respect as coaches and give them schemes that are going to work and they can believe in,” he said. “And visa-versa; those guys go out there and make plays for us and you develop that chemistry over time. There’s no way to get that other than really just going out and going through the fires with guys and have the success. We really believe that it all starts in practice and the game kind of takes care of itself.

“I’ve been saying from the start; it’s just hard being new. We’re making progress and I think they are doing a good job of hearing us and buying in. There’s just different ways of doing things. They are used to doing it different and we have a way. I don’t even know the other way they did things. I appreciate them for staying focused and trying to do everything that we’re all about.”

We always read things into every game; it’s what we do. Just as Chris Petersen and his staff have their process, we have ours too. We use the four quarters we see every weekend to help extrapolate the next four months, but in this case it’s awfully hard to do. With injuries mounting and roles still being formed, it would unwise to come to any real concrete ideas about who the Washington Huskies will be by the end of the season.

But if we can take anything away from UW’s 25-point runaway win over Illinois, we can see the offense is starting to find its balance between run and pass, and more specifically what it can do well in the passing game. We are seeing a young quarterback continue to develop in front of our eyes. Defensively the front seven has to continue to provide pressure to take the burden off an inexperienced secondary growing in confidence by the week. The tackling is improving. The mechanics are getting cleaned up.

It’s a process, after all.


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