September 24, 2009

5 Questions on the Huskies

Five questions on the Cardinal

1) Jake Locker seems to have taken another step in his development, where has he improved?

I could write an entire story on just this one question. For starters he's no longer coached by a 5-foot-9 ex running back and finally has some great quarterback minds tutoring him. Because of this everything has improved. But for the sake of your readers I will list what I feel are the top three things.

The first thing has to be his patience in the pocket. Locker has only taken off 26 times in the first three games compared to 50 last season. He believes in the scheme, he believes in his offensive line, and he's more willing to go through all of his progressions before running.

This couldn't have been more evident than during the USC game. At one point the entire right side of the field was wide open and everyone including Steve Sarkisian admitted he could have easily taken off and scored. Instead he threw perhaps his most ill advised pass of the day. While Sark wants him to be smarter and take off when it's there, that was a sign of his dedication to the system and to being a pocket passer.

Second is his accuracy which has taken a tremendous jump as he can now make all three levels of passes. Locker has always had a huge arm and could also connect on the short timing routes. However, it was the intermediate passes that really caused him problems. In his first two seasons he only completed 48.7 percent of his passes and this season is throwing at a 60 percent clip and that's against LSU and USC's defenses. No UW quarterback has thrown for 60 percent in a season since Damon Huard did it in 1995. However, that is Sark's goal for Locker and so far so good.

Lastly his leadership and composure has turned him from an athlete to a quarterback. In his first two seasons Locker was always the most jacked up player on the field. Often times he even joked about being out of breath because his adrenalin would be so high. Last Saturday against USC in what can only be described as a career changing drive, he was calm, in control, and led by example. After being sacked on the opening play setting up a second down and 22, he kept his composure and made sure everyone else followed suit.

2) The Stanford defense has been vulnerable to the pass, do you think UW will be able to exploit that?

The statistics would say yes and so does conventional wisdom. LSU ranks No. 19 and USC No. 25 in pass efficiency defense. Yet Washington still managed 321 and 237 yards passing respectfully. You would think they could also find holes in Stanford's No. 79 ranked pass defense. Also consider Stanford got that ranking facing the No. 43, 65 and 88 rated pass offenses in the nation.

The Cardinal are breaking in some fresh faces in that secondary with two of them switching over from offense. I'm sure Stanford's pass defense is only going to improve, but so is Washington's young passing attack. Seven of Washington's top-eight pass catchers are sophomores or younger with their go to guy being a true freshman.

If Washington continues their trend of being able to grind out tough yards and can force a Stanford safety into the box, UW's passing attack could be the biggest advantage for either team in this game.

3) The Cardinal offense is geared around a power running game, will the Huskies be able to control that?

I don't think you stop a player like Toby Gerhart, but Washington certainly has the horses to slow him down. They were gashed in the running game by USC early, but really settled down in the final three quarters and proved why defensive coordinator Nick Holt is one of the highest paid assistant coaches in the land. Washington has a decent rotation of players up front on defense and in my opinion the best linebackers in the Pac-10.

Against LSU the Huskies were able to hold power back Charles Scott in check but gave up some big gains to the speedier Keiland Williams. Right now the Huskies struggle more with zone blocking schemes like USC used and quicker backs. But that doesn't mean Gerhart can't be effect, especially if Andrew Luck finds holes in what has appeared to be a porous secondary. Against both LSU and USC, Washington moved a safety up close for much of the game. The Tigers Jordan Jefferson was able to exploit that and connect with Terrance Toliver for some big plays, USC's Aaron Corp was not so lucky. Even if Gerhart doesn't have a monster game but just keeps the pressure on Washington to move a safety up, that could be enough to give the Cardinal offense an advantage.

4) How would you rate the UW special teams at this point in the season? Stanford has enjoyed a big advantage in every game this season.

So far Washington's kicking game has been solid. LSU has Trindon Holliday, the fastest player in America returning kicks and Washington took him out of the game with short directional kick-offs. They have yet to give up a huge return and are only allowing 15 yards per kick off and 12 yards per punt return. Given Chris Owusu's propensity for punishing anyone who kicks him the ball, I would expect Washington to give him the same respect they gave Holliday.

Junior college transfer Will Mahan is averaging over 40 yards per punt, but those numbers would be much higher if it wasn't for his final two punts against USC. Besides those two shanks, he's been nearly perfect. Actually he's better at placing punts than booming them, something that should come in handy while trying to avoid Richard Sherman. UW isn't coy about their belief in directional punting and kicking and they are not going to go right at Stanford's two outstanding return men.

5) What kind of game do you expect to see and what is your prediction?

I'm cautious to say that Washington matches up very well with Stanford. I'm cautious to say the Cardinal secondary is going to struggle mightily with Washington's Pac-10 leading passing attack. I'm cautious to say that Washington's outstanding linebackers will be able to control Gerhart, putting the game in the hands of a first year quarterback. I'm cautious to say the AP voters got it right and Las Vegas got it wrong. I was cautious to say all of these things because I witnessed like so many other people Washington's disastrous 0-12 season.

At least I was cautious. I was cautious before I saw and heard something at Wednesday's practice that gave me confidence.

When a local reporter made a reference to last season's 0-12 record to coach Holt, I thought he was going to rip someone's head off. Holt exclaimed in a very animated manner that he wasn't here last season, he doesn't care about last season, and he never wants to be asked about their 0-12 record again. It was then I realized Washington has moved on. They have forged a new identity and it all starts with their leaders. From day one Steve Sarkisian has laid claim to one of the best coaching staffs in America and the proof has been on the field.

Stanford has speed, but are they faster than an LSU team Washington dominated in nearly every statistical category? Stanford is physical, but are they more physical then a USC team Washington beat? If I'm only basing my prediction on what I have seen this season I believe Washington comes out on top 28-17.

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