Oregon St. and Washington renew old hostilities this Saturday night at Reser, with both teams looking to bounce back from recent road losses and meat of the schedule losing streaks. The winner gains bragging rights, always an important thing in the Northwest rivalries, but also has a shot at 8 or 9 wins, and the better bowl. The loser will have more work cut out for them.
Not unlike the Beavers, the Huskies have lost a key piece at Wide Receiver for the season. Not unlike 2 years ago, when Washington last visited Oregon St., and lost 38-21 to the Beavers, quarterback Keith Price's health is an issue, and will affect everything else about the game plan to varying degrees. That was the last start Price has missed for the Huskies.
We got together with a couple of the big dawgs up at the UW Dawg Pound, Anthony Cassino and Kirk DeGrasse, both of whom cover the Huskies on a daily basis, and have done so for long enough to have perspective on all things purple, to get an indepth look at Washington as we get ready for a frigid Saturday night showdown.
Thanks, guys, for taking a look inside what Beaver Nation can expect to come down from Montlake.
BTD: We won't know if Keith Price will play until at least Thursday, and if he does, it seems he will likely be less than 100%, and more importantly, less than 100% bullet-proof. If its Cyler Miles instead, even though his running ability is one of the big things he brings to the table, it seems like the last thing Coach Steve Sarkisan and the Huskies could afford would be for Miles to get hurt too. Especially with DT Micah Hatchie questionable too, are we likely to see Sark go with some max-protection blocking schemes in order to ensure he still has a quarterback by the end of the night Saturday night?
Anthony: They already keep their running back in a lot to help on pass protection, but as far as max protecting, I'd really question if having your All American tight end blocking instead of working the middle of the defense is the best strategy. Plus, with the injury to Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins is lining up outside of the tackle box more and more often, so it's not even all that often where the Huskies would have the option of using more than six players in pass pro.
Kirk: Given the trajectory of this season, I would guess that the pressure to win supersedes concerns about not getting his QB injured. I expect Sark to dial up the gameplan that gives his offense the best chance to move the ball and score, and so far this year that has rarely resulted in max protect looks. In fact, Sark mentioned that he's encouraged Cyler to run the ball more - he felt like Miles passed up some run opportunities vs. UCLA. Doesn't sound like he's shying away from exposing his QB.
BTD: With Kasen Williams unfortunately lost for the season, what adjustments to the receiver progressions has Washington had to make? Who will Oregon St. see where on the field?
Kirk: It appears as though true freshman Demore'ea Stringfellow has won Kasen's spot; he'll occupy one of the two outside WR positions opposite Kevin Smith, with Jaydon Mickens remaining the starter in the slot. Marvin Hall will likely see time, and up until last week John Ross typically saw a number of snaps in the slot backup up Mickens.
Anthony: Because of the depth UW has a receiver and tight end, there hasn't been a ton of adjustments needed. As mentioned above, ASJ has picked up some of the slack, and against UCLA Stringfellow lived up to his recruiting hype as he torched the Bruin secondary. Oregon State will see a lot of those two as well as Kevin Smith and Mickens, both of whom had been more productive on the year than Williams had even before he went down to injury.
BTD: We noticed John Ross didn't have any catches against UCLA. Has the speedy freshman fallen out of favor as a WR? Possibly in favor of an apparently expanding presence for Smith? Or Stringfellow?
Anthony: I'd say it was just happenstance. It's not the first game this season where he didn't have a catch, and he's had four games where he had just one. He just hasn't been much of a factor to this point in his career, but on his limited touches you really have to hold your breath because you can see how if he gets a crease, he's gone.
Kirk: Hard to say what happened with Ross vs. UCLA; Hall has improved and started to gain the confidence of the staff, but they haven't really used him in the same way they've used Mickens and Ross. While he has terrific speed and quickness, he's also shown himself to shy away from contact, and it may well be that the staff has decided to maximize the snaps they give Mickens instead.
BTD: Speaking of Stringfellow, where did that out-burst Friday at UCLA come from? Do you think he can sustain anything close to that?
Anthony: That kind of production isn't really sustainable, no, but with his 6'3", 225 lb. size he presents a definite headache for corners to try to stick with. There's a reason he was considered by many the top WR in the west coming out of high school, and he definitely has the ability to put together some big games through the rest of the year.
Kirk: Last week was obviously a breakout game for Stringfellow, but given his recruiting hype and what he showed in high school, it's not entirely a surprise. He possesses terrific size, decent speed and had shown good hands as a recruit. At least part of the big game appeared to be a connection he has with Miles, as Miles typically looked for Stringfellow as his first option. But he also made some plays early, and whether he picked up confidence as the game went on (and gained the confidence of Price and the coaches), or this was simply a manifestation of progress he'd made in practice in the week leading up to the game.
Kirk: Sankey has really just picked up from where he left off last season. The Stanford win last year was the breakout game for Sankey where you could see him gaining confidence and running with more assertiveness, and he had developed into a premium back through the 2nd half of last season. He's kept it going from there, using great vision, burst, subtle elusiveness and underrated speed to emerge as one of the top RB's in the nation.
Anthony: He just does everything well. He has done a good job of getting solid chunks of yardage on the ground and keeping the offense ahead of the chains all year. The uptempo spread has helped him out a bit, with defenses having to widen out to cover a guy like Jaydon Mickens and giving Keith Price the option to give the ball to Sankey if the Huskies have a numbers advantage in the box.
The offensive line's run blocking is improved over a year ago. And because they're running more plays, he's getting more carries. It's just that everything has gone Sankey's way this season, and it has lead to an All American caliber season.
Anthony: I would guess they'll try to get him matched up frequently with Marcus Peters, who may be the best corner Cooks will have seen to this point in the year. Contain is the operative word though, because it doesn't seem like you stop Cooks. Expect a lot of safety help over the top, and a philosophy of keeping him in front.
Kirk: The easy answer would be to say they'll stick Marcus Peters on him and always keep a safety deep on his side, but Wilcox & Keith Heyward have tried to simplify things on defense this year by keeping their guys fixed on one side of the field rather than playing match-ups. Given just how much more productive Cooks is than any of the other Beaver WR's, and given the struggles that Greg Ducre has had lately at the other CB spot, I would guess they'll give serious consideration to assigning Peters exclusively to Cooks.
BTD: Who is the Husky on defense that Oregon St. most needs to build their game plan around? Shaq Thompson or Marcus Peters? Both seem to be playing game-changing ball on almost a weekly basis.
Kirk: Shaq Thompson is probably the most versatile, dangerous defender in the Husky lineup. While his hype has somewhat exceeded his actual production for most of the past two years (though don't get me wrong, he's been a good player), the way he was utilized against UCLA and how well he played (missed fumble recovery notwithstanding) really stood out to me. He's got more speed than most other LB's, is more physical than most DB's, and he's got 23 games under his belt. He gives Wilcox a lot of flexibility in what he can do with his schemes, and what has me excited is I'm seeing him being sent as a blitzer more often now, and I expect him to develop into a real threat in this capacity.
Anthony: I would actually go with Hau'oli Kikaha. He's the best Husky pass rusher, and if he is allowed to get to Mannion with any consistency it's going to be the best thing the Huskies can do to slow the Beaver offense. I also expect to see more of Josh Shirley than we have in most games this year as an added pass rusher, which is his strength, so the Huskies can bring heat from both edges.
BTD: Washington hasn't won in Reser in a decade. And now, once again, the Huskies have an uncertain situation at QB going into this week's contest to complicate matters. With the Beavers favored (by 2 at last check), what do the Huskies have in store to change things up this time? Fly John B. in to give them the pre-game talk? (That's not a half-bad sounding idea, actually.)
Anthony: The changeup this year is the modifications made to the offense. Even though they haven't won them, the Huskies had their chances at Stanford and UCLA, and the biggest factor will be if they can limit their mistakes. They lost those two games because of turnovers and special teams, and if those things were sound then we're talking about a completely different season from the Dawgs. The formula has been close, so I don't expect Steve Sarkisian to tinker with it too much.
Kirk: I think Sark himself is still searching for that answer. He's aware as anyone the difficulty his teams have had in getting over the hump in road games, and you have to wonder how much of it is now psychological. On the other hand, there is precedence for teams under Sark to play better when their backs are against the wall. While this team has clinched bowl eligibility already, they are not a lock to go bowling, and more importantly I think everyone on the team knows that they haven't met their expectations for the season. I see this as going in two possible directions - that reality either leads them to play flat, feeling like the season is a disappointment regardless, or they play pissed-off and angry and take out their frustrations by beating Oregon State soundly and notching a good road win.
BTD: Both teams are 6-4, and going to have a "good" year, but both have also had 3 game losing streaks, and the season is also going to probably wind up being a "disappointing" one, given what could have been had those skids not been quite as bad. Now many are calling this game a huge game, because of what it could mean to either team to win it after an up and down season, but also because of what it will mean in a negative way to the team that loses it. What do you see a win doing for the rest of the season for Washington? What happens up on Montlake if the Beavers win this one?
Kirk: Building off the last answer, a win in this game keeps alive the possibility of getting to 9 wins for the season, a final result that would cool Sark's seat in the minds of all but a few rabid fans. It would also help get the road monkey off their collective backs. If on the other hand they lose, the "fire Sark" talk will start gaining some mainstream traction as it will mean at least 5 losses in conference - a clear step back in a season that was supposed to be the step forward for Sark. And you can't help but wonder if that wouldn't damage the psyche of the team enough that a loss in the Apple Cup starts to look a lot more possible, and if that happens all bets are off for Sark's future at the UW.
Anthony: A win for the Huskies will set them up for a big finish, and maybe a 9 win season. It has the potential of really being a turning point for Sark in getting over the 7 win hump and staving off some of those who are calling for his head.
A loss here, and Sark is in serious danger of losing the fanbase. He's already lost a good chunk of them, but even many of the most loyal are growing weary of the teams apparent inability to beat any team that's even decent on the road.
BTD: We hear the rumblings about replacing Coach Sarkisian clear down here in Corvallis, but also his name coming up with regard to other jobs. However, despite what some of the media and some of the fans want, it's Athletic Director Scott Woodward whose' opinion matters. What do you think he's most likely to do? What would it take to change that, for better or worse?
Anthony: I think that, barring a disaster, Scott Woodward will not replace Steve Sarkisian after this year. If they lose the final two of the regular season and their bowl game, his hand will likely be forced and we'll see Sark moving along.
Conversely, if the Huskies win out and get to 9 wins, I think we'll see a contract extension for Sark. Anything in-between doesn't seem like it will be extreme enough for the AD to make a move on the position.
Kirk: I touched on this above, but I think losing this week and next week could put Sark in jeopardy. Even with 6 wins, there's no guarantee the Huskies go bowling, and a 6-6 season with no bowl in a year where they were supposed to take a big step forward could be enough to force Woodward's hand. I have no doubt that 8 or 9 wins guarantees his security for at least another year, but a 7-6 year - for the 5th year in a row - might cause enough big wallet boosters to request a change, though recent recruiting momentum for the 2015 class could be enough to tip the scales in favor of Sark. I have little doubt though that if he were to finish 7-6 and be retained, he'd be on a searing hot seat for 2014 (i.e. 9+ wins or bust).
Thanks, again; Saturday should be interesting for all concerned!