SEATTLE — Chris Fetters covers Washington football for Dawgman.com and knows the team as well as anyone. BYU matches up against the Huskies this Friday in the Fight Hunger Bowl in what looks to be a very competitive matchup on paper.
Washington heads into the game after an up-and-down season and without head coach Steve Sarkisian, who has moved on to coach at USC.
So what can BYU fans expect from Washington in the game and how do the teams match up? We asked Fetters five questions to gain better insight on what to expect.
1. How has Steve Sarkisian's departure affected the team? What was the general reaction from fans and players regarding the hiring of Chris Petersen?
RESPONSE — Everyone seems to be putting on a brave face, and some players have come out and said that Sarkisian's move to USC has actually motivated them even more and put a bigger chip on their shoulder to get that ninth win — the first time Washington has done that since 2000. As far as the general reaction of the hire — it seems to have been universally praised by the media and fans alike. The gist of the media narrative has been Washington got a coach with a win percentage of 89 percent and got paid for the privilege of sending a rival a coach that, from a win-loss standpoint, is only slightly above average.
From the fans' perspective, the hire was praised for being swift and decisive — the only questions being 1) Can Petersen recruit against the USCs, UCLAs, Oregons and Stanfords of the world? And 2) Can his massive win record translate to the BCS level? Obviously only time will tell.
2. Characterize Washington's season. The team started and finished strong but suffered through a tough stretch in the middle of the season. Was this season seen as a success, a failure, or somewhere in between?
RESPONSE — Somewhere in between but with the anticipation of getting to nine wins being the benchmark for 'success.' Honestly you could say the same thing about nearly every season at UW under Sarkisian — save the 2009 campaign. The last three 7-6 seasons were marked by three-game losing streaks sandwiched among wins, and that was something that Sarkisian really struggled with.
They started out promising and then either finished strong, like 2010, or wilted, like 2012. He's had both types of seasons when it comes to the mantra of 'Finish.' This season they finished well, but the blowout losses to Oregon and Arizona State really robbed Sarkisian of a lot of the credit he really deserves if this team does, in fact, win that ninth game. UW fans thought the years of the blowouts were behind them.
3. Washington has some exciting and potent players on offense. Talk about these players and what type of offense the team runs.
RESPONSE — Offensively, Washington runs basically the same type of offense they always have under Sark — a run-first attack with both spread and pro-style concepts that operates almost exclusively out of the shotgun now. The main component they've added to this year's attack is the hurry-up, no huddle angle. It's allowed quarterback Keith Price to play more and think less. Sark said they studied last year's film and saw a connection to Price's productivity going up when they sped up the offense. They did it in fits and spurts in 2012, but this season they went all out — and in the process set all-time records for scoring and total offense.
The offense revolves around running back Bishop Sankey, the runner-up to the Doak Walker Award this year. He set the UW all-time single-season rushing record this year, a record that stood for 17 years. He's got it all; speed, shiftiness, cutting ability, durability, strength, aggressiveness, pass-catching ability. Sankey is the total package.
Washington also has the John Mackey Award winner for the No. 1 tight end in the country, and that's Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He racked up frankly paltry numbers compared to his sophomore season, but that had more to do with Sark going to the run game more and the tight ends much less this year. He's still a huge weapon in the passing game and has really improved his ability as a blocker on the end.
The Huskies also have a number of receivers they've had to rely on in Kasen Williams' absence. The star wide-out is out for the rest of the year after getting tangled up with Cal's Kameron Jackson and coming down awkwardly on his foot and ankle. Jaydon Mickens, Kevin Smith, John Ross and freshman Damore'ea Stringfellow are the ones to watch when Price goes back to pass.
4. Same question on defense. What are the strengths and what type of defense do the Huskies run?
RESPONSE — Justin Wilcox has been nothing short of a miracle worker in his two years after taking over from Nick Holt. His defensive numbers immediately went from the 100's nationally to the 30's in both rush and pass defense. He runs multiple fronts and doesn't blitz a ton, relying on a four- or five-man rush and great secondary coverage to do damage. Wilcox assembled a young, talented group of assistants, but two of them — LB coach Peter Sirmon and DB coach Keith Heyward — are already with Steve Sarkisian at USC. So that means some graduate assistants are filling in. We haven't been given access to them, so we don't know that much about what's going on, but in talking to the players they sound like everything is business as usual.
Up front the difference-makers are Danny Shelton on the inside — a Star Loutulelei type, and Hauoli Kikaha (formerly Jamora) outside. Kikaha came back from two knee surgeries to second-team All-Pac-12 honors. The linebackers are a talented bunch, and they fly around. Junior MLB John Timu is a team captain, while he's typically flanked by sophomores Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson. Thompson was an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 pick. The secondary is talented and experienced, including three senior starters. Both safeties — Sean Parker and Will Shamburger — are seniors, as is corner Greg Ducre. The other corner is Second Team All-Pac-12 pick Marcus Peters, who many are touting as the next great Washington DB after Desmond Trufant.
5. How does the team and fan base regard BYU? How do the Huskies match up against the Cougars and what do they need to do to come away with a win?
RESPONSE — I think Washington fans have a healthy respect for BYU and what the Cougars have done to the Huskies — especially the last three times they've played. And then there's always BYU's 1984 national championship that UW fans would desperately dispute — that would have been a great game. I don't think a lot of older Husky fans have ever gotten over that snub.
As far as how UW matches up, I only know enough about BYU this year to be very dangerous. I do know they dismantled Texas, a game which got everyone's attention. Generally speaking, the makeup of how the Cougars got to 8-4 this year is somewhat similar to UW: they beat the teams they were supposed to, came away with a tough win or two, but had a tougher time beating the teams ranked ahead of them or tougher games that were played on the road. That's why the game — at least on paper — appears so compelling. You have two productive quarterbacks that have done it in much different ways.
In games like this where the teams appear to be close enough to be considered evenly matched, it always comes down to the footballing cliches; hold onto the ball, start out strong, keep everything in front of you on defense, eliminate the big play, and then don't get caught unaware on special teams. I think if UW does those things, as well as rely on the things that got them to this point, they should be right there to the end.