After beating then-No. 14 Arizona at home, No. 18 UCLA is slowly crawling back up the national rankings. But to stay alive in a tight Pac-12 South race, the Bruins can’t afford to lose any of their last three regular-season games. They visit Washington on Saturday for their last road trip, and are currently listed as a 6.5-point favorite over a team that doesn’t have any victories over ranked opponents. Adam Jude of the Seattle Times answered five questions about the Huskies.
1. Since moving to running back, how valuable has Shaq Thompson become to Washington’s offense? What does the Husky defense miss most when he’s not in?
Shaq has quickly become the Huskies best offensive weapon, with 272 yards on 36 carries in two games as the Huskies’ featured running back. Before that, you could make a strong case that he was UW’s best defensive player. His four defensive touchdowns this season are the most in college football over the past decade, according to ESPN research, and he was drawing some national pub at midseason as a national defensive player of the year candidate. There’s no doubt, though, that he is more valuable to the team as a running back right now. It’s likely that he will play some at linebacker against UCLA, but the Huskies are fairly comfortable with the depth they have on defense behind him.
2. UW also has a pair of Bednarik semifinalists in Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton. How much does the defense rely on their performance? And given how much UCLA struggled against a similarly aggressive Utah front, do you see any soft spots the Bruins could try and find?
Two of the best (and nicest) guys I’ve covered. Kikaha is as good as any player at this level at getting to the quarterback; he leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. And Shelton leads the team in tackles — as a 340-pound nose tackle. Not sure I’ve ever seen that. When the Huskies can pressure the quarterback with four linemen, it makes life much better for the back end of the UW defense. That’s true for every team, but especially so for a UW secondary that will start three true freshmen against UCLA in the wake of Marcus Peters’ dismissal late Wednesday. Peters, a three-year starter, is considered one of the top corners in the country; with him out, freshman Naijiel Hale (son of the late rap artist Nate Dogg) will get his first start for UW.
3. Cyler Miles is in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in most statistical passing categories. What’s ailed him in his first full year as a starter?
Miles was suspended for all of spring ball and for the season opener, which seemed to set him back in learning the new coaching staff’s offense. It was going to be a challenge anyway as a first-year starter, but the suspension really hurt. There have been many of the ups and downs you’d expect of a first-year starter, and the lack of a consistent run game — plus several injuries to the offensive line — haven’t done the quarterback any favors. Miles doesn’t have a strong arm, but he makes up for that with good anticipation, and he’s a capable, confident runner.
4. John Ross III hasn’t made as much of an offensive impact recently, but he still leads UW in receiving yards (371) and touchdown catches (4). How much will it affect the offense now that he’s slated to also play nickel corner?
Ross’ lack of touches on offense has been an almost daily question among UW fans, too. Part of it, Chris Petersen explained this week, is that Ross hasn’t been 100 percent; he had a minor knee injury in September that kept him out of one nonconference game. Part of it was the inconsistent play of the quarterback and the offense in general. UW coaches have praised freshman WR Dante Pettis, who had a two-touchdown breakthrough at Colorado last week. The Huskies are just so desperate in the defensive secondary right now that Ross is needed there, though he is still expected to play some receiver this week.
5. Some wondered during the offseason if Chris Petersen would turn out to be an upgrade over Steve Sarkisian. How have he and his new Washington staff looked in year one?
Expectations were very high coming off a nine-win season in 2013. A lot of that was based on Petersen’s resume at Boise, but a lot of folks seemed to gloss over the fact that UW was breaking in a new offense with a new quarterback and a new set of running backs. So far, the Huskies have won the games they were supposed to win and lost to the three ranked teams they’ve played. Over the final four games, a 2-2 finish is realistic, with a chance at a ninth win in a bowl game. That would be a good first season for a lot of coaches, but I know many UW fans were hoping and expecting more.