We are back with our feature of talking shop with the opposing SB Nation blog regarding the game that week. Of course, Rutgers kicks off their 2016 campaign on the road across the country in Seattle. The #14/#18 Washington Huskies have been a media darling and trendy pick this offseason to make the jump in becoming one of college football’s elite teams. Expectations are high and I was fortunate to trade questions with John Sayler from Washington’s UW Dawg Pound. Their entire fan base has been very welcoming this week and dealing with John was no exception. He was nice enough to give us the scoop on how Washington is looking ahead of Saturday’s opener. Here we go.
There has been a lot of hype towards Washington for this season and the team is ranked in the top 20 of both the AP and coaches poll. They are a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 and some have even predicted they will make the College Playoff. What are the thoughts and expectations of the fan base entering Chris Petersen's third season? How do you expect this season to go?
Washington was a good team last year, but they struggled on offense at times and lost several close games, eventually having to rally with three straight wins to reach 7-6. In the five games where the Huskies had possession in the final five minutes trailing by a score, they were 0-5. The only close game they won was at USC 17-12, a game where the offense didn’t have to come back but did do a nice job of holding on.
They were outclassed only once and that was at Stanford. Still, the defense was good enough that not even that game got out of control. What did get out of control were the lopsided wins against the rest of their schedule, especially in the second half of the season. Washington averaged 45 points per game in their 6 run-away victories.
Basically that is a long-winded way of saying they were so close to having a better record last year, and a very young, deep team with 75% of its key players coming back is an attractive pick to improve. If you listen to someone like Todd McShay who ignores the hype, he thinks the Huskies will be a really good team, but playoff team or even Rose Bowl is premature. I think the attitude of the fanbase is: Make room on the bandwagon for the casual fan who heard about the hype. OK, now that we accept that the hype is real, show us that you can beat Oregon and Stanford --or at least have a better record than them—and we will believe it ourselves.
On offense, Washington returns quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. They both burst onto the scene last season as freshman. Were they highly recruited and expected to star right away, or was their emergence somewhat surprising? What are the expectations for both this season and can you please describe the strengths of both players? What type of offense does Washington run and are there any other players on offense Rutgers fans should be aware of?
Browning is a record-setting high-school quarterback from California. He was State Player of the Year his junior season, then threw 91 (yes, ninety-one) touchdowns his senior year and won the award again. He was rated a consensus Top-5 pocket-passing QB nationally coming out of high school, so yes, we expected him to be good. If UW had a reliable veteran passer, Browning might have redshirted, but he showed early on that he has some grit and a little magic as well. He has an excellent pocket presence that will drive you crazy when you see him somehow escape when he doesn’t look very strong, very quick, or very fast. He just always seems to do it, keep his eyes downfield, and throw accurate passes. Not a rocket arm, but he throws with anticipation and can make all the necessary throws. He needs to get better on his deep ball (lots of overthrows) and show that he can score a winning touchdown when the game is on the line.
Gaskin came in as a little bit more of an unknown. Seattle high school players sometimes fly a bit under the radar of the UW fans when we get caught up with out of state recruits or 4-star players elsewhere in the state. Gaskin was a great running back in Seattle’s tough metro league, and those in the know felt he could be the guy to take over the job. His style, from an opposing fan’s standpoint, I would describe as “why the hell can’t they get him?” He’s small but powerful, really patient, and explosive.
Washington runs a pretty typical college offense, somewhat on the sophisticated side. Mostly shotgun or some variation of the pistol, with tons of motion and a zillion sets; 3 TEs one play, then 5 wide the next. They love the read-option with Browning either handing to Gaskin or making a quick throw. The offensive line returns all but one of the starters and backups, but some of the best ones are in only their second year. It’s a unit that if not improved, will prevent this team from serious contention.
The Huskies graduated their top 2 receivers from last season, and the receiving corps as a whole is considered the biggest question mark on the team. John Ross is a name to watch out for this year. He missed last season after off-season surgery, and appears to have returned to form and then some from a physical standpoint. He’s a true 4.25/40 guy who has added some muscle to his 5’11 frame and is up to 190lbs. Ross has scored eight TDs of 50-yards or more in his one-and-a-half seasons playing offense for the Huskies, plus a couple more kickoff returns that got called back.
Washington had a great defense last season and I believe they return seven starters for this year. Please describe the defensive style of this unit and what the expectations are on this side of the ball. Who are the key players of the defense?
Seven starters sounds about right. Basically I count five seniors gone from of the 20+ man rotation on defense. This is a defensive unit that substitutes a lot, especially along the defensive line. What the Huskies do is play base defense really well; cover well, win one-on-one matchups, and tackle. They were statistically the best defense in the Pac-12 last year, and it would be pretty shocking if they aren’t near the top again in 2016. The secondary is probably the strength overall, just from a standpoint of sexy: All-American free safety Budda Baker is a Honey Badger-like field general, and future top-20 NFL pick Sidney Jones is a lockdown cornerback. The ‘best defensive player’ is a four-way toss-up between those two, middle linebacker Azeem Victor and versatile defensive tackle Elijah Qualls. The UW defense will allow teams to gain some yards, but they keep things in front of them and become better when the opponent has less field to work with. They make good QBs look less good, but where they really shine is making average QBs look awful.
How would you rate the special teams and tell us about Washington's kicking game?
Special teams coverage was rarely a problem for Washington last season, and the kicking game is decent as well. Senior PK Cameron Van Winkle has been good in his career, hitting 82% on his kicks (69% beyond 40yds). He did miss a 40+ yarder that would have sent the Boise St. game into OT, so plenty of people are still pissed about that. Kickoff specialist Tristan Vizcaino recorded touchbacks on over 1/3 of his kickoffs. UW loses its punter from a year ago, and Vizcaino (4 punts/41 yard average) is one of the potential replacements, along with true freshman Van Soderberg. UW has a new long-snapper as well in redshirt frosh A.J. Carty.
The return game features the aforementioned Ross, who has three career kickoff return TDs, and punt return man Dante Pettis, who has also taken three kicks to the house and boasts a 12.7 yard average in his two years as the Huskies’ primary punt returner. True freshman Chico McClatcher filled in for Ross last season on kickoff returns and was sixth in the Pac-12 with a 23.3 yard average. McClatcher is expected to have an increased roll on offense, so he is another player to watch out for; very quick.
With Rutgers coming off a 4-8 season and having a new head coach in Chris Ash, how are Husky fans approaching this game on Saturday?
Husky fans are bursting at every seam for this season to start. The hype has been agonizing and they want to see some football. Rutgers comes in pretty unknown to UW fans, but the name and the Big Ten conference affiliation gives the opening game a little more shine than the following two against smaller conference opponents. Washington fans will be using this game as a measuring stick, and with a 4-8 team coming into their stadium, expect to win it going away. Not necessarily a blowout-type game, but fans want the Huskies to assert themselves as the clearly better team. If Rutgers can pull off the upset, cue the shitstorm.
For Rutgers fans traveling to the game, can you give them any suggestions of where to go on gameday and fun places near campus to visit? It's an early kickoff so where should Rutgers fans venture to after the game?
One of your fans posted that very question about a month ago on our SB Nation site. Read the comment section of this article for some great discussion and options. The University of Washington’s campus and its football stadium are in the exact middle of the Seattle/King County metropolis, so there are about a thousand places to eat, stay, play, etc. The stadium itself sits on Lake Washington, which divides Seattle and Bellevue, so ‘sailgating’ into Union Bay and coming ashore for the game is not something a fan can do many places. University of Washington fans are (generally) loving of visiting fans, specifically ones who don’t frequent Seattle often.
What is your prediction for this game?
If the Rutgers defense can stifle Jake Browning, I like a close first half. Then Washington’s depth kicks in and a worn out Laviano throws the ‘Dawgs’ a bone or two. Browning is very good when playing with a lead, so the Huskies take it 34-13.
Thanks for having me “On The Banks.” Looking forward to a great game, and good luck.
Thanks again to John for taking the time to give us such in-depth answers. Best of luck to all the Washington fans in their quest for the Pac-12 title this season. For even more scoop on Washington, check out our SB Nation colleagues at UW Dawg Pound.
To read my answers to John’s questions on Rutgers Football, click here.