SEATTLE — Chris Fetters covers Washington football for dawgman.com and knows the program as well as anyone. We asked Fetters five questions to gain better perspective on Utah's next opponent.
1. Steve Sarkisian has seen mixed results since becoming head coach at Washington, and some mention he's on the hot seat. How has Sarkisian done this season and how satisfied are UW fans with his program?
I honestly think it varies by the week. After the LSU game, people were genuinely wondering when the next time would be that UW could compete with a top team on the national stage — then they go home and beat two top-10 teams (at the time) in Stanford and Oregon State. In between those two games, they lose on the road to Oregon and Arizona by a combined score of 104-38. Even after a win at Cal, many UW fans are not satisfied with the progress made in year four under Sarkisian, although compared with the 0-12 season in year four under his predecessor he should be considered a godsend.
If UW loses to Utah, Sarkisian will once again be perceived to be on the hot seat when the reality is he's nowhere close to that. I think a lot of the roller coaster of emotions comes from the fact that UW fans don't want to be burned twice after they failed so miserably and totally under Tyrone Willingham, so I believe there's very much a "fool me once" mentality that has set in with a fair number of Husky fans.
2. The team has rebounded with two straight wins after three straight losses. Is it simply due to the competition it's played or is this team seeing noticeable improvement and if so, where have those improvements been made?
It's been a trademark of all Sarkisian teams since he took over in 2009 — he's had spots every year where the team has lost 3-4 games in a row. A lot of that had to do with the competition they were playing at the time, but to quote Sarkisian himself — losing can be as contagious as winning is. The biggest improvements that have been made this year have been on the defensive side of the ball — especially in the secondary. Right now they are No. 2 in pass defense in the Pac-12, up nine spots from last year.
3. Talk about Washington's offense. What type of offense does it run and who are the primary play-makers?
Per Sarkisian, Washington likes to run a balanced, multiple offense. It wants to be able to run and pass with equal measure, and will do it a number of ways — I-formation, shotgun, spread, zone read, fly motion, single-back, etc. … If there's an offensive philosophy out there, Sarkisian will try and pick something out of it he can use to put his best play-makers in a position to impact the game.
The heartbeat of the offense is quarterback Keith Price, and that heartbeat has been a bit erratic at times because he's struggled. He's starting to come out of it a little bit, but his biggest problem is beating himself up over turnovers. During the stretch of three losses to Oregon, USC and Arizona, he was responsible for 10 turnovers. When he's holding onto the ball and trying to do too much, UW is in trouble. When he makes good decisions and can quickly get the ball distributed, they play much better.
The three main play-makers on offense are running back Bishop Sankey, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and receiver Kasen Williams. They are all capable of taking games over if given a chance. Sankey had nearly 200 yards at Cal, and ASJ had the best game ever statistically for a tight end in the history of the program last Friday with 154 yards receiving. Williams scored last year against Utah.
4. Talk about Washington's defense. What type of defense does it run and who are the primary play-makers?
Washington will run multiple sets under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who had stints at Cal, Boise State and Tennessee before coming back to the Northwest (he played at Oregon). They will go small or big on their DL, depending on who they are playing.
The primary play-maker up front is Danny Shelton, their nose guard. Like Star Lotulelei for Utah, Shelton controls everything in the middle and allows the DE's to get upfield to make plays. Problem with that is UW's DE's have been largely ineffective all season. They only have 13 sacks, which is tied for deal last in the conference. Josh Shirley, who was at the top of the leading sack specialists last year, just hasn't been able to lock into his role within Wilcox's new schemes, but he's capable of ripping off a 3-4 sack game at any time. He's just been stymied, for whatever reason.
At the linebacker spot, John Timu is a captain and the soul of that group, but it's true freshman Shaquille Thompson that will turn on the style and make big plays for that unit. The defensive backs are the experienced core of Washington's defense, with Sean Parker and Desmond Trufant both captains. They have played really, really well this year. Marcus Peters, the corner opposite Trufant, has shown the ability to step up in crunch time, too. He's a talented youngster.
5. How do fans and UW players regard Utah as a football program and what does Washington need to do to beat Utah come Saturday?
I believe Washington fans have a healthy respect for Utah football, going back to when Urban Meyer put them on the national map. Of the final four games in UW's schedule starting with Cal, I also believe Washington fans felt the Utah game was the one game that could cause the Huskies some real problems in terms of tripping them up and not allowing them to finish with a five-game winning streak.
They respect Kyle Whittingham and who he is as a defensive-minded coach and the fact that his teams are teams that very rarely make crucial mistakes and beat themselves. If you were lucky enough to beat Utah, it's because you out-performed them and executed your game plan well in all three phases.
To win the game, Washington just has to play their brand of football — which lately has meant establish the run, be smart with the play-action passes, take advantage of the big play when it's there, bend-but-don't-break on defense, play smart, sound special teams, and most importantly — win the turnover battle. Capitalize on mistakes when they are handed to you, because traditionally Kyle Whittingham teams don't give you many opportunities to take the game away from them. When they do, you have to take advantage.