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Previewing Washington

There's been a lot of turnover up on Montlake in the year since Oregon State last took on Washington, with several Huskies having headed on to the NFL, and more than a few others that were a part of the back to back beat downs the Dawgs put on the Beavers the last 2 season are also gone.

So there's been a fair amount of rebuilding, and it includes a freshman quarterback, Jake Browning. The script sounds familiar to Beaver fans, but it has gone a bit better for the Huskies, though not all that much. Washington comes to Reser Saturday with a 4-6 record, needing to defeat both the Beavers and Washington State next week in the Apple Cup to become bowl eligible, and then probably hope for an at-large berth somewhere.

Washington brings the Pac-12's best defense though, and that's the reason the Huskies still have holiday trip hopes, contrasted to the Beavers, who don't.

But what should we expect to see Saturday? To get an update on our old Northwest rivals, we got with Kirk DeGrassefrom up at the UW Dawgpound, our brother SB Nation site that covers the Huskies to get an update.

Thanks, Kirk, for taking time out of your storm to talk football, still the best thing to do in the fall.

BTD: The Huskies are in a rebuilding year, and still in system & staff transition (year 2), so the fact that they are in back to back must win to make it to a bowl game situations, against one NW rival on the road, and then another in the Apple Cup, doesn't seem like it should be a surprise, though I sense that hopes that things might have gone a little better might be over-riding expectations that they might not have. But as far as the team and core group goes, it seems like its "go time", effectively play-off football the next 2 weeks; win and advance. Is there any reason to expect anything other than play-off level focus and intensity on game day?

UWDP: No, I think you nailed it. The coaching staff is saying all the right things - they're not discounting the situation they're in about needing to win the next two games while also emphasizing that you can't win the next two if you don't win the first one. Chris Petersen talked after the ASU game about this team having their backs against the wall and embracing that situation, saying he thinks it might be what this team needs.

Considering the amount of younger players populating the 2-deeps, it shouldn't be a shock that they've had troubled playing with the consistency across all four quarters needed to win close games. While some fans didn't want to accept it, this was setting up to be a rebuilding year for the team with the major losses off the OL, DL, LB and QB and some hits at WR. The fact that the defense has responded by playing even better this season than last has left quite a few fans lamenting a situation where a bowl game is far from certain and a losing season a definite possibility. We'll see how the players respond and if we are able to look back in a few seasons and point to this game as a key moment in the Chris Petersen era.

BTD: Oregon State's defense has played better than their numbers, but reality is they are accumulating injuries right and left, and often not able to sustain what they are trying to do. It seems like Washington is at its best when they run the ball a lot, and results last week at California suggest that's a solid strategy for this week. But a patchwork OSU secondary is also an opportunity for UW to try to get their passing game more on track, something they will need when the Cougs come calling, especially given the difficulty the Beavers have had generating a pass rush (which actually has a lot to do with the problems in the secondary). What kind of game plan/attack do you anticipate we will see from the Dawgs this week?

UWDP: After being a run-heavy team last year it's been a bit of a surprise how much more focused on the pass they've been this season, especially considering the success RB Myles Gaskin has had and the tough lessons you expect to learn with a true frosh QB. I do expect Washington to be much more balanced this week than last against an OSU defense that appears equally vulnerable against the run and the pass. While both Petersen and OC Jonathan Smith defended their pass-heavy gameplan against the Sun Devils, I expect they both would like to run the ball more and will look to use the run game to set up the pass this weekend.

BTD: Defensively, the Huskies have been one of the best units in the conference, and its generally been that way all year long. This despite having to replace most of what was a good front last year. And a couple of injuries (I'm thinking primarily of Budda Baker, but there have been others.) haven't really derailed things either. How is Baker, by the way? I see he's the starter on this week's depth chart, but is he back to mid-season form? What other injuries should be considered that might impact things?

UWDP: The consistency of the defense has been impressive. One of the reasons there hasn't been a drop-off from last year is that there's a lot of quality depth on that side of the ball and the new starters this season all saw significant action last year as backups as Washington under this staff has not been shy about having a heavy rotation of players on defense. That said, the loss of Elijah Qualls in the middle has been felt the past two weeks. You could see the DL wearing down late vs. Utah, and against ASU they could have used his ability to get upfield and collapse a pocket from the inside. His backup Greg Gaines has played very well in his absence, but it's a much bigger drop-off from Gaines to Vita Vea (3rd string NT) than it was from Qualls to Gaines.

Budda had a relatively quiet game vs. ASU. I'm not sure how much that had to do with any lingering effects from concussion symptoms suffered vs. Utah and how much was just the way the game played out. At this point in the season he and most of the guys on the defense are probably playing with various nicks and dings and fighting through them. Travis Feeney has battled some shoulder issues, so he's another guy on the defense that could be slowed a bit.

BTD: Following up on that, Oregon State will run primarily, and with a quarterback in Nick Mitchell that's not the running threat that Seth Collins was, but is still mobile. How will the Washington defense play this? Should we expect a lot of blitzes, or more of a scheme that keeps everything in front of them, given that Oregon State hasn't been able to sustain many drives at any point, and giving up a big play or two is the one way Washington's defense could find themselves with a tight game on their hands?

UWDP: Washington's defensive MO under DC Pete Kwiatkowski has been to play things fairly safe - they want to keep plays in front of them and rely as much as possible on 4-man rushes with safety help deep. They rely on players executing their assignments, keeping plays in front of them, swarming to the ball and tackling well. For the most part they've succeeded, with tackling being the one area where there's been continuing issues.

Physical talent is certainly a big part of why this approach has worked - they have big bodies in the middle that can clog running lanes; fast, long and rangy linebackers on the edge that can rush the passer and not embarrass themselves covering underneath zones and a young but improving secondary that can hold up in man coverage. They don't blitz a lot, but they have done so more this year than last - without Hau'oli Kikaha and Andrew Hudson around to terrorize quarterbacks they've had to dial up more pressure packages.

I would expect the Huskies will play mainly base defenses against the Beavers with an emphasis on stopping the run and take their chances that Mitchell won't be able to beat them through the air.

BTD: Bigger picture, while its been disappointing to some Husky fans that the wins haven't been as numerous as they would like, the reality is the Huskies aren't far off. The 4-6 record includes 3 one score losses, and 2 more by less than 2 touchdowns. Those could all have gone different with very little happening different. Yet reading UW Dawg Pound makes it clear a material number of fans are questioning Chris Petersen, and the assistants he's tasked with implementing his strategy and tactics. We all know that regardless of whether most fans are unhappy, or happy, the reality is what a handful of investors who write 6-7 figure checks think is what holds sway, and will determine who stays, and who goes. Do you sense much dissatisfaction with the situation among those few whose opinion (and check book) matter? To the point of forcing Athletic Director Scott Woodward to make or direct Coach Petersen to make some change?

UWDP: There's no doubt that there's a vocal contingent of Husky fans that are extremely frustrated that the program has not been a Rose Bowl contender for going on 15 years now. They're tired of hearing about "patience" and "process" and "youth" - they just know that the Huskies used to be a national power and used to be the premier program in the PNW, and they're tired of waiting for that to be true once again.

I get the frustration, and while I think there may be some reasons to think that Petersen's run at Boise State inflated his reputation a bit too high, I also see plenty of reasons for optimism for the future. His recruiting is going well (outside of some difficulties attracting top-tier wideouts), you can see the potential in the young guys already playing, the defense appears to have a very bright future and there's a definite comfort level with the way Petersen conducts himself, especially in comparison with the volatility of his predecessor.

I doubt that the big-money donors are putting much heat on Scott Woodward at this point. The team is on-track to meet outside expectations for the season and still has a chance of modestly exceeding them by reaching a bowl game. Where the expectations will ramp up is next year - fans will expect this team to win a lot more games and start to look like a program that can compete with Oregon and Stanford for the Pac-12 North, and by 2017 will be very high, i.e. compete for the Rose Bowl.

I also expect that Woodward is smart enough to know he's not a football expert, and that it's not his place to demand changes in Petersen's staff. I also expect that Petersen knows well enough that his offense hasn't been getting it done and that results have to improve next year. While I think he places a lot of value in loyalty, I don't think it's to the complete exclusion of performance. While I doubt you'd say any major changes to his staff this off-season, a change or two also wouldn't surprise me.

BTD: Those of us watching from afar have been flabbergasted by the number of empty seats at Husky Stadium the last couple of years. This with a team that's been going to bowls and has a shot at another.

This is totally different than what we saw for generations, where Husky Stadium was one of the toughest places to play in the country. Even during the low point pre-Sark, I remember both big loud Husky Stadium crowds, and huge contingents of Huskies showing up at road games. Neither seems to be the case anymore, and surely something Coach Petersen and the team would like to have to help them. What happened? Seahawk fervor?

Is this issue, and the sizable loss of revenue that goes with it, going to force Woodward to do something? Is there anything he can do?

UWDP: It's a tough situation, no doubt. I think the easy answer is that this is simply a different era, and a confluence of factors has led to this point:

- Washington suffered through their worst stretch of football - by far - after firing Neuheisel (and you could say the slide started under his watch) and so you have a whole generation of football fans that have never known the Huskies to be anything more than slightly above-average.

- The massive TV deal that Larry Scott and the school presidents agreed to had the side effect of making going to the games in person that much less appealing; with wildly varying start times that often aren't set more than a couple weeks in advance, including a great number of late night games that make it tough for fans with young kids or those that have to travel from outside the local region, it can be a tough choice to decide to deal with the unappealing aspects of getting to the stadium (and possibly poor weather) vs. sitting in the comfort of your home and watching on a big HD television.

- While the renovation of Husky Stadium has once again made it a terrific venue, it also came with an increase in ticket prices and a greater number of seats requiring Tyee contributions (a hefty additional seat fee); simple economics tells us that the cost of the tickets simply doesn't match the demand, and walking past the scalpers on game days, perusing the online ticket markets and seeing the number of games that get advertised for deals on Groupon proves this

Woodward is clearly banking on demand for tickets going up as a result of the team getting better. And while I think that will happen, I also think that so much damage has been done to the fanbase - and is continuing to happen with the students being relegated to the end zone - that it's hard to imagine a time when the team consistently sells out the stadium all season long and becomes one of the most intimidating home fields in the country. Given the relatively low numbers of season tickets sold, he may need to recalculate ticket prices moving forward.

BTD: Finally, what's your take of the state of the sport in the conference, and nationally? With revenue sharing and conference-wide contracts, plus conference perception, driving playoffs, rankings, and even non-conference and mid-tier bowl deals, not to mention the ripple effect on the other programs on the campus, we are in this together. It seems like the Pac-12 has issues, some of their own making, some not, that need to be addressed for each of the programs to continue to make the kind of progress we have in the last several years.

UWDP: I'm a bit pessimistic. We in Pac-12 country simply don't have the same fanaticism for the sport that those in SEC, Big-12 or even Big Ten territory have. The TV contracts prove it - now that all the Power-5 conferences have had recent TV deals inked, we can see that in cold, hard dollars. I give Larry Scott a lot of credit for dragging this conference into the 21st century, but there's only so much he can do - without the demand there from fans for product, there's a limit to how much money this conference can generate in comparison to the other Power-5 conferences.

That money has an impact, from opulent football palaces and related facilities to the salaries paid to coaches. The Pac-12 is doing quite well at the moment - the roster of head coaches is as strong up and down the league as it's ever been, and most programs have done (or will soon do) upgrades to their facilities. But I think that may be a temporary blip relative to the temporary level playing field the conference enjoyed on the financial front before the SEC and Big-12 were able to renegotiate their own Tier-1 TV deals. Will RichRod stay in Arizona if schools in the South come waving big money at him? Will Sonny Dykes stick around Cal? Will Mike Leach stay at WSU? Will Jim Mora quit flirting with big-time openings and actually move on from UCLA?

I think the conference will always put out a quality product on the field because there's too much talent in the region to not do so, but kids are more likely than ever these days to be willing to play at schools farther away from home, and that quality of play could start to slip. We have to hope that Scott's creative efforts to open up new markets and new revenue streams pays off, and that he can avoid missteps such as his failure to secure nationwide distribution of the Pac-12 Networks.

Thanks Kirk, for the great insights.

Be sure to check in often at the UW Dawgpound for breaking news about the Huskies as game day draws near.