We had the privilege of trading a couple of exemplary Q&A's with our opponents from the University of Washington SB Nation blog "UW Dawg Pound," handled nicely by contributor Chris Landon. Make sure you head over there for my responses to his inquiry, as well as some other excellent Cactus Bowl previews (that's right, I just said "excellent" and "Cactus Bowl" in the same sentence).
1. OSU folks are pretty unanimous in their fondness for Chris Petersen, largely due to leading Boise State to a spectacular upset of OU in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Are Washington faithful happy so far with his transition to coaching in a Power 5 conference?
Chris Landon: Ask any Husky fan today and, to a man, you'll hear about a still-lingering of feeling of the incredible fortune feel about landing Chris Petersen in the wake of Steve Sarkisian's shocking resignation almost exactly one year ago. On the west coast, Petersen was the "White Whale" for many a P5 AD and had previously spurned huge opportunities at UCLA, USC, Stanford, Arizona, Penn St and Florida. That he would decide that Washington was the right fit for him and his family after building such a legacy at Boise St, including becoming the only active coach to have won the Bear Bryant award twice, is was more than what most Husky fans could have hoped for. However, the transition year this year has disappointed most fans. Not so much because Petersen hasn't lived up to his billing. On the contrary, he has done more than that in terms of truly implementing not only his system, but his disciplinary standards that are so much a part of his reputation. UW has suspended or dismissed nine players this year - a list that includes its starting QB, its best WR, and a player that almost every draft service ranks as the #1 CB in the upcoming NFL draft. The end result is an eight win campaign with no victories over teams with winning records. This despite the presence of three All-Americans on Defense (Shaq Thompson, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Danny Shelton), Marcus Peters - the consensus top CB in the draft - for much of the season, and an offensive line that was top five in the nation to start this season in total starts. It isn't so much that fans would have expected Sark to have produced more wins, but there was a hope that a coach of his caliber would have had more of an immediate impact. That said, it would be hard to look around what is happening at UW right now and to not conclude that the future looks pretty bright.
2. After a couple of shaky wins to start the season, it looks like the only thing the Huskies had a hard time with were ranked opponents, accounting for all five losses. Do you feel like this team is better than it's record?
CL: "Better than its record" may be a stretch. Most people around our blog (don't forget to check out the UWDawgPound) had projected a 9-win regular season given that the Dawgs were replacing all of its offensive playmakers in record-breaking QB Keith Price (3 year starter), record-breaking RB Bishop Sankey (NFL), John Mackey award winning TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE), and top WR prospect Demore'ea Stringfellow (suspension/transfer). The presence of the stars on D were well-understood. However, it was also understood that the depleted secondary would have to start at least one true frosh (by the end of the year, we were starting two true frosh plus two true sophomores - one of whom started the year as a WR). That said, very few people expected the kinds of struggles that the Huskies had in absorbing Chris Petersen's new system or, despite getting the Ws, the kinds of struggles we saw against teams like Hawaii and Georgia State. Still, the Huskies did get better as the year progressed. Starting QB Cyler Miles, who had been suspended all of the off-season and for the first game due to a fight, ranked out on a statistical basis as one of the top 5 QBs in the conference over the second half of the season (a fact that is very hard for many Husky fans to acknowledge), the young RB duo of Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman started making some plays and, importantly, the offensive line started playing to the level that most hoped they would to start the season. They finished strong outplaying their opponents in four of their final five games (including a very controversial loss to Arizona). This is a team on an upswing.
3. The defense is obviously the strength of the team. If the Cowboys have success, where would you expect to see that materialize?
CL: Not unlike the Cowboys, the Huskies are very young and very thin in the defensive secondary. They came into the season with just one star - CB Marcus Peters - only to watch him get suspended multiple times before being booted for bad behavior. He is currently projected by ESPN as a first round draft pick. The rest of the group is made up of young players with huge upside - like S Budda Baker and CB Sidney Jones - but they are so thin that they had to convert one of our best WRs - John Ross III - to CB, a position that he has already taken over as the starter on. The Huskies will protect that secondary by playing a lot of zone and trying to confuse the QB with multiple looks. They will also take advantage of their outstanding ability to generate pressure with the D-Line and rush four or, sometimes, only three. Teams that have succeeded against UW have been able to establish rushing attacks up the middle into the soft area of the zone (assuming that they can get past huge NT Danny Shelton) or taken advantage of UW's small CBs by exploiting big WRs in the short to mid-range passing game. Some teams have also been able to connect on big plays with big WRs over the top by exploiting youth-related blown assignments. The key is to get the ball out quick if you are Mason Rudolph. The pass rush of guys like Shelton, DE Hau'oli Kikaha (led nation in sacks) and DE Andrew Hudson is relentless. They average over 3 sacks a game coming in a conference with many mobile QBs.
4. Educate us a bit on those defensive standouts we aren't looking forward to meeting.
CL: The best of the bunch is NT Danny Shelton. He's an athletic 340 lbs as evidenced by his 89 tackles (89! for a NT!), 9 sacks, and 17 TFLs. He simply isn't blockable with one man. BUCK Hau'oli Kikaha is an inspirational story having returned from two blown ACLs to become the Huskies all-time leader in sacks and a consensus All-American as the nation's sack leader this year. OLB Shaq Thompson is a hybrid LB/S type of player who helps the secondary a ton in coverage and who closes gaps as well as anybody in football. He's a remarkable athlete who finished the season as the Huskies second leading rusher on offense and who also creates havoc as a defensive playmaker. He led the nation with four defensive TDs this year (3 fumble recoveries, 1 INT). True frosh CB Sidney Jones and S Budda Baker are key playmakers who play above their experience level. CB John Ross is a converted WR who has very long arms and remarkable speed - he'll be difficult for James Washington to beat. The wild card player is DE Andrew Hudson. A player that the previous coaching regime thought so little of that they asked him to leave last year despite a year of eligibility. He was invited back after Petersen was hired and went on to put up a monster year with 71 tackles and 11.5 sacks. He is the kind of guy fathers hope their daughters will meet some day and he plays every game as if it was a gift. He benefits from the attention that the rest of the DL gets and he is very productive.
5. While it doesn't seem like we're expecting to hear a lot from Washington's offense, the stats point to some playmakers. Who should OSU fans watch for, and where do you most expect to see the Huskies have success?
CL: Cyler Miles is a controversial QB. Though he seems rehabilitated from the issues that led to his offseason suspension, he continues to be a point of frustration for Husky fans who bemoan his loopy throwing motion and the lack of passing power that it creates. Still, the stats tell you that he is very accurate with the ball, that he makes good decisions (which has improved as he's developed in the system) and that he has tremendous skills outside of the pocket and as a runner. RB Dwayne Washington is a home-run hitter. He missed much of the season with an injury, but has been on fire since his return. A converted WR who boasts a 6'2" 220 lb frame, Washington is all angles and elbows when he hits the line of scrimmage. If he gets past the first level, he's very hard to take down in the open field. He averaged nearly 130 yds per game and 8 ypc over his last three games after returning to the lineup. Finally, the receiving corps is very limited. But watch out for Sr WR Kasen Williams. Kasen has had very little production this year as he has struggled to come back from a gruesome leg break towards the end of last season. However, he is the Huskies best true "big" receiver and he is one of the all-time greats in Husky history. As a senior in high school, he was the Parade National Player of the Year and, when healthy, he has remarkable strength and elite leaping ability. He was starting to come on a little bit as the season concluded and he figures to benefit the most from the month-long break as the Huskies prepare for the Cactus Bowl.
6. We obviously need a prediction, but let's add something to the usual expected score. How about also the expected "bizarre" play of the game. Bowl season has seen some doozies already. Petersen caused Cowboy fans to dream about the hook and ladder and Statue of Liberty. What kind of Cactus craziness could transpire in Tempe?
CL: I expect this game to be pretty close in the end. Both coaching staffs are well-known for their abilities to scout and prepare for opponents. In addition, I think both teams feature the same number of difference makers. The one advantage that leads me to lean towards my own team is the one that the UW defensive front seems to have over that banged up and youthful offensive line, particularly with a true freshman at QB. The Huskies tend to play a very conservative game plan. Defensively, the theme is "bend don't break" with all of the pass rush being generated by the defensive line and very little blitzing. The idea is to protect the young secondary. Offensively, this is a run-first, run-often offense. Chris Petersen will definitely break out the trick plays, but they'll almost always be on the opponent's side of the field and are usually of the pass off a reverse variety. If you are looking for some craziness, watch and see how the Huskies utilize their three-way players. Shaq Thompson is a very physical running back with elite top-end speed. The Huskies are sure to feature him in a few packages on offense while he also plays on all the special teams. Likewise, Soph John Ross is a score-from-anywhere threat as WR and KO Returner. He has four TD receptions of over 55 yards on the season, has two career 100 yard KO returns for TDs and, this year alone, has had three TD returns nullified on non-relevant penalties. If things are going to get crazy, it is because one of these two players is going to something on offense, defense and/or special teams.
Thanks again to Chris Landon of UW Dawg Pound. Make sure to give him a follow...Follow @chrislandon