After five games, Washington is 4-1 overall and 0-1 in the Pac-12 following Saturday’s 20-13 loss to then-No. 16 Stanford. Here’s a progress report during the Huskies’ bye week:
WHAT WE KNOW:
1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Even during the Huskies’ 4-0 start against a rather soft nonconference schedule, key questions continued to resurface in Chris Petersen’s first season as the UW coach. At times, the Huskies have looked too robotic, particularly on offense, as if they’re thinking more about what to do rather than reacting and doing it. Petersen and his staff are sticklers for details — “Everything matters,” Petersen likes to say — which has been a significant adjustment for players in many areas. Petersen’s hard-line approach to discipline is one example of his desire to set a solid foundation for the future of the program, as he envisions it. He would like to win every game he plays, no doubt, but it’s clear that he’s not willing to take any shortcuts in the short term if it jeopardizes the overall outlook of the program.
2. The offense has work to do. That was obvious against Stanford. The Cardinal’s top-ranked defense deserves a lot of the credit, but that wasn’t the first sign of trouble for the UW offense. The Huskies were shut out in the second half in the opener at Hawaii and again in the first half against Georgia State (that’s GEORGIA STATE). Their 179 yards of total offense against Stanford was the program’s fewest since 2010 (also against Stanford). UW is averaging 35.6 points per game, a respectable figure even in the Pac-12, but the Huskies are last in the conference in total offense. In 2013, the Huskies had their most productive offense in program history; replacing the likes of Keith Price, Bishop Sankey, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kevin Smith — stars of that 2013 offense — has proved more difficult than many expected.
3. Shaq Thompson is indeed superstar. In what many believe will be his last season in a UW uniform, the junior linebacker has at times been UW’s best player — on defense and offense. Thompson, a former five-star recruit, has lived up to the vast expectations heaped upon him when he came to UW in 2012, even as he’s juggled several different responsibilities. In his first season as a weak-side linebacker, he’s third on the team with 35 tackles and his four touchdowns — three on defense — are tied with John Ross III for the team lead. As a part-time running back, Thompson has nine carries for 84 yards and a touchdown, and he plays on most of UW’s special-teams units. Against Stanford, he also played strong safety for the first time. “I’m not sure what Shaq’s best position is,” Petersen said Monday, adding that he does “worry about not overloading (Thompson) and wearing him out.”
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW:
1. Is Cyler Miles the long-term answer at quarterback? This might not be a fair question for a sophomore who is 4-1 in his five career starts, with just four games with this new coaching staff. Fair or not, the reaction — and overreaction — to Saturday’s loss centered on Miles, who struggled to move the offense in the second half against Stanford. There were times when he panicked and escaped the pocket too soon, but, as Petersen has suggested, the offensive line and the running game in general didn’t do the quarterback any favors. As worrisome as that performance was, Miles remains UW’s best option. There are tools for him to succeed. At 6-feet-4, 225 pounds, he has breakaway potential with his legs, and in 100 pass attempts this season he hasn’t thrown an interception (with six touchdowns passing and three more rushing). Most likely, Miles won’t face a defense as good as Stanford’s again this season. He was sacked four times and knocked down repeatedly. For the first time as a Husky, this is his chance to pop up and prove his critics wrong on the field.
2. Can the running game gain steam? The Huskies have run the ball more than anyone in the Pac-12 — averaging 48.4 attempts per game — but their average of 4.3 yards per attempt is seventh in the conference. As Miles continues to develop confidence in the passing game, the running game must get going more consistently. Lavon Coleman, a redshirt freshman, leads the Huskies with 79 rushing attempts for 344 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore Dwayne Washington has three touchdowns on his 49 attempts, and senior Deontae Cooper is averaging 6.8 yards on his 13 carries. The run game took a hit when senior Jesse Callier (torn Achilles) was lost for the season against Georgia State. The veteran offensive line (playing again without senior right tackle Ben Riva), so solid in blocking for Sankey last season, struggled against Stanford’s stout front seven. For the offense to take a significant step forward, it has to start at the line of scrimmage.
3. How will the defensive secondary survive against the Pac-12’s elite offenses? In addition to Thompson, veterans Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha and John Timu have played at a consistently high level for the UW defense. Another veteran star, meanwhile, has had a rocky start to the season. Junior cornerback Marcus Peters was suspended against Illinois and was benched again for the first three series against Stanford. He still leads the team with three interceptions. Peters is UW’s only veteran defensive back; the Huskies’ other three available scholarship cornerbacks are all true freshmen. Jermaine Kelly, a redshirt freshman who started the first two games, is likely out for the year with a broken ankle, leaving true freshman Sidney Jones as one starting corner. He’s held his own so far. True freshman Naijiel Hale made his first start in Peters’ place against Stanford. Budda Baker, another true freshman, has started every game at free safety — and he’s hardly ever left the field. That young secondary was tested severely against Eastern Washington, and it’s fair to wonder how all those freshmen will fare against some of the nation’s best quarterbacks as the Huskies head into the heart of Pac-12 play.