It's been awhile since USC last played Washington. These teams last met in 2012 when Lane Kiffin was the head coach of the Trojans. We talked Washington Football with Kirk DeGrasse, a site manager for UW Dawg Pound.
1) A lot has happened since these teams last met. Both teams have new coaches as Steve Sarkisian left UW for USC while Washington welcomed Chris Peterson from Boise State. Whats the feeling in Seattle this week as they prepare to face their old coach?
Trepidation mixed with excitement. As you can imagine, Sark stirs up a lot of strong feelings among Husky fans. Some never fully warmed up to him, feeling like he was too immature as a coach to get the Huskies back to competing for conference titles; many that did appreciate what he accomplished in reviving the program from depths never before seen in Husky football history were not pleased to see him bail for a conference rival. Sark is only the 2nd Husky coach in history to voluntarily leave for another coaching job (Darrell Royal was the other), so we're not really used to our head coaches getting poached.
Obviously the Trojans are an extremely talented team, and for all the talk of Sark losing games he "shouldn't have", those typically come on the road. This will be a tough, tough game. And as much as most players are saying the right things about this being "the next game on the schedule", you can bet most of them are thinking the prospects of facing Sark and exacting a bit of revenge; whether that works to Washington's advantage or acts as a distraction is hard to know. I would expect there's a bit of extra motivation for Petersen as well - things didn't exactly go that well the last time he coached a team on the road against a Sark-coached team.
2) 8-6 last year and off to a 2-2 start this year, how is Chris Peterson doing in his first year and a half with the Huskies?
Well, depends on who you ask. The Husky fanbase has suffered greatly over the last decade plus, and it's led to significant divisions among the ranks. Some Husky fans are fed up with mediocrity and don't want to hear about "culture-change" and "youth" and the like. There are also some that never bought into the idea of Petersen being an elite coach and discount what he accomplished at Boise State. For those fans, Petersen has been a disappointment.
Most fans though understand that this program is still being rebuilt. For as much success as Sark had here in building things back up, he also left some major holes on the roster. As well, this was a significant cultural change that has led to a lot of attrition, and even those players that have stuck around and bought-in are finding themselves behind a lot of newcomers recruited by the current staff. For better or worse, Petersen and his coaches have decided to go with a lot of first and second year players; while talented, they're also very young and inexperienced and are taking their lumps. Most outside observers pegged this team for 4-5 wins this season, and most of the more optimistic Husky fans were thinking 6 wins, so while losing close games to Boise State and Cal were disappointing, they also weren't terribly surprising.
The 2016 and particularly 2017 seasons are the ones where the youth movement should pay off. If the Huskies aren't a legit Pac-12 championship contender by 2017, something is wrong.
3) The Huskies have started a true freshman at quarterback since the opener. Can Jake Browning become the next great quarterback at Washington?
Definitely. He's shown significant potential already. He doesn't have elite arm strength, but he's got enough arm to make most throws. More importantly he's shown plus accuracy and anticipation, and he seems to have that "it" factor that the great ones have. He's still a true frosh with only 4 college starts under his belt, so he's still on a significant learning curve. He had the luxury of an outstanding OL in high school, so dealing with a constant pass rush is new for him. He's also not getting a lot of help from his wide receivers so far and has had to lean on his tight ends and RB Dwayne Washington. But assuming the OL progresses (they're starting 1 true frosh and 2 RS-frosh) and the staff is able to recruit & develop improvement in the WR corps, he has the potential to be as good a passer as the Huskies have seen since at least Cody Pickett.
4) Who are some players to know on defense for the Huskies?
One of the beauties of this defense has been the quality of depth - they are rotating liberally at all levels. The main guys to know so far among the starters would be NT Elijah Qualls, MLB Azeem Victor, OLB Cory Littleton, CB Sidney Jones and FS Budda Baker. Qualls is an athletic NT who uses his quickness to get upfield and disrupt plays but also has enough strength to clog the line. Victor is a big and fast MIKE with a mean streak; if he can keep his emotions in check on the field, he's got the athleticism and ability to be an honors candidate. Littleton flies under the radar, but he's a fundamentally sound edge defender and consistently grades out the highest among the LB crew. Jones is a true sophomore that compares favorably to Desmond Trufant and Marcus Peters at this stage of his career. Baker is the Huskies' version of Earl Thomas - an undersized but extremely fast and athletic centerfielder. He remains questionable with what is assumed to be a high-ankle sprain suffered vs. Utah State, an injury that held him out vs. Cal.
5) Both teams are coming off of byes and now facing off on a Thursday, what does Washington have to do to pull off the upset?
Well, it's a cliche but also a truism - Washington is going to have to win the turnover battle. The Husky defense and special teams have been very strong so far, and their strength should give the UW a chance in this game. By S&P, Washington's defense ranks just behind Stanford's in the P12 and 22nd in the country. The special teams have played very well too - Dante Pettis is a dangerous punt returner, Cam Van Winkle is a dependable placekicker, Tristan Vizcaino has improved considerably on his kickoffs and Korey Durkee has been effective as a punter.
Offense is where the Huskies will need a breakthrough. Obviously it would help Washington's cause if they can develop a consistent rushing threat in this game. Dwayne Washington is an explosive back with home-run speed; he's typically been better in power-blocking schemes, but he showed improved vision last week in zone schemes. He's also a threat as a receiver and by far our best pass-blocker among the backs. Jake Browning will also have to show improved feet in the pocket, stepping up against pressure instead of trying to outrun it. He'll need to continue making good decisions in package plays, and this is where a talented group of tight ends helps him by allowing him to attack the middle of the field.
USC is playing at home and are too talented to think that this will be one of those unexpected Sark losses; while I think the Husky defense and special teams are good enough to keep this one from becoming a blowout, it's going to be a significant uphill battle for Washington to pull out the win. I see this being something like 31-17 for USC.
Thanks to Kirk for answering the questions and you can read about the Huskies all season at UW Dawg Pound.