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September 2, 2012 at 4:32 PM

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Husky football review: Three likes and dislikes about Washington's performance against San Diego State

HuskiesStead.jpg
Photo credit: Jordan Stead/The Seattle Times
Josh Shirley and John Timu celebrate one of many encouraging plays for the Husky defense.

If you noticed, my assignment for Sunday's newspaper was to write an early column off the Washington-San Diego State game, which means I wrote a pre-game piece that required little revision once the game began. Basically, I was charged with writing around the event instead of writing off it. It's a pretty common role for one writer to be given when you have multiple reporters and columnists writing on a tight deadline for a regular-season game. And a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on a Saturday night is the tightest of deadlines because we have to get the Sunday paper out earlier.

So I focused on the adjustment to playing at CenturyLink full time this season while Husky Stadium is being renovated. Click here to read that column. Steve Kelley wrote a column on what happened during the game, and you can read his thoughts here.

But what did I think about the actual game?

Well, glad you asked.

Here are three likes and dislikes that I have a day after Washington's 21-12 victory over San Diego State.

Bad news first, so we can end on a positive note.

Dislikes

1. Keith Price took too many hits. Between the offensive line's struggles to protect the quarterback and Price's frustrating penchant for hold onto the ball too long, the junior quarterback was sacked three times and knocked down way too much. The Huskies don't want to see a repeat of Price's nagging leg injuries a year ago. It seemed like he was limping at times on Saturday night, but afterward he said he felt fine and none of the hits hurt him. He also called it one of the worst games he has ever played, even though his passing stats (25 of 35 for 222 yards, one touchdown, no turnovers) suggested he was just fine. But Price misfired on a few throws that he makes easily, and after taking what the defense gave him in the first half, he tried to do too much to help an offense that didn't score in the final three quarters. He'll need to be better, and he will be better. Coach Steve Sarkisian admitted to a poor game calling plays, too. Over the course of the season, Price and Sarkisian will be the least of the offense's concerns, but they'll need better O-line play to assist them. Just as concerning as the pass protection was the run blocking. The Huskies gained only 106 yards rushing and averaged 3.4 yards per carry against an opponent that they should've been more successful against in the run game. Were the injuries to running back Jesse Callier (knee) and tackle Ben Riva (fractured arm) that impactful? And if they were, what's that say about the depth on offense? Season openers are nothing if not inconclusive, so keep that mind. But the Huskies will need to improve tremendously this week just to be competitive against No. 3 LSU.

2. Tackling remains an issue on defense. New Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is a stickler for fundamentals, and even though the Huskies showed plenty of positives defensively (more on that later), Wilcox was very balanced in his assessment of the performance. He praised the effort and the ballhawking, but he noticed too many mistakes, and the Huskies continue to be an inconsistent tackling team. They made some nice open-field tackles, but then they failed to wrap up on easier plays. The performance of linebacker John Timu was pretty indicative of the D. He made six tackles and put himself in the proper position to make a lot of plays, but if he had tackled better, he would've had double-digit tackles and made an even greater impact.

3. The offense didn't score in the final 47 minutes of the game. The Huskies scored touchdowns on their first two drives, but that was it for the rest of the night. The defense accounted for the final points they would score as safety Will Shamburger recovered a fumble and ran it back for a 44-yard touchdown. If not for that defensive score, this game would've gotten really tense in the fourth quarter. As we said earlier, Sark admitted to poor play calling and took much of the blame for the offense's ineffectiveness. The players made some key mistakes, too. Bishop Sankey had a red-zone fumble that cost the Huskies at least a field goal. Price also took a sack for an 11-yard loss at the San Diego State 23-yard line that eliminated a good chance to score. A debatable pass interference penalty on wide receiver Kasen Williams also cost the Huskies a 39-yard touchdown. So, their offensive numbers could've looked much better. They were a few plays from scoring in the mid-30s at least. Still, they were far from sharp. The offense should only be a small concern until we see reason to fret more. Remember, the Huskies were outgained 504-250 by Eastern Washington last season, and the offense went on to have a great year. The Huskies gained 328 yards in this game, but only 108 of those came in the second half. Sark experimented for a while and then went into survival mode after it became apparent that the Huskies weren't on their game. After one week, the offense is in need to better O-line play, a run game and more explosive plays from skilled players not named Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

Likes

1. Wilcox's aggressive, opportunistic defense had a positive debut. The Huskies forced three turnovers, collected four sacks and scored a defensive touchdown. They were exceptional in the first half, allowing just 121 yards, but their flaws showed more in the second half, particularly when they allowed quarterback Ryan Katz to create havoc outside the pocket. Katz gained 65 of his 77 rushing yards in the second half. He and Walter Kazee (nine rushes for 86 yards) were the biggest factors in the Huskies allowing 199 rushing yards and five yards per rush. I looked at the defense this way: The Wilcox's scheme is intriguing, and when the Huskies executed well, you saw the potential for big things. The mechanics of how the Huskies operate within that scheme still needs major work, but you had to expect that. After last season's epic disappointment under former coordinator Nick Holt, change is refreshing. It was nice to see players such as Josh Shirley and Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson flying around. Cornerback Tre Watson had a great interception. The pass defense was tremendous, allowing only 10 completions and 128 yards through the air. Most important, though, is this positive, which might get hidden among the displeasure with the offense: The offense didn't score in the final three quarters, but the defense held onto that lead. And it provided a cushion with Shamburger's fumble return. The defense needs plenty of work, but this was a positive first step. If not for a trick play (one in which officials probably shouldn't have allowed) accounting for a 47-yard San Diego State touchdown, the Huskies' defensive numbers would've been rather eye-popping. Still, the Huskies' effectiveness on D was the story of the game. "They won the game for us, quite honestly," Price said of the defense.

2. Sophomore stars Seferian-Jenkins and Williams truly looked like future NFL players. The highly-regarded duo combined for 15 catches and 157 yards and a touchdown, accounting for 60 percent of the Huskies' receptions and 71 percent of their receiving yards. They both have man-child elements to their game. ASJ shoved a 225-pound defender into the ground with a great stiff arm. Williams
is a terrific combination of physicality and grace as a wide receiver. The Huskies will need more receiving threats to develop around them, and even though Price targeted ASJ and Williams quite a bit, nine players still caught passes, including Kevin Smith, who returned from a knee injury and posted two receptions for 20 yards. James Johnson (wrist) is still out, and true freshmen Kendyl Taylor and Jaydon Mickens are listed as starters on the depth chart currently. (Mickens started opposite Williams against the Aztecs, but Taylor didn't because the Huskies opened with two tight ends.) The Huskies will rely on ASJ and Williams all season, but especially early, and Sarkisian will need to be clever in designing plays for them even while they're the focus of the defense. There will be challenges, but it's realistic to expect huge numbers from both players this season. They're just that good.

3. The Huskies started the game with impressive energy and execution. It doesn't excuse how blah they looked afterward, but Washington played a great first quarter. The defense was off the field after five plays to start the game, and Watson's interception and 34-yard return set up the Huskies' first touchdown of the game on a two-yard Sankey run. Then, the defense came right back and forced San Diego State to go three and out -- a huge, underrated key that sent Aztecs reeling. The offense followed with a nine-play, 62-yard touchdown drive, finishing it off with Price's eight-yard pass to Williams. That's the way a home team is supposed to come out and step on a team's neck. The Huskies never lost the early lead.

Overall assessment

It wasn't a feel-good opener. The Huskies left plenty of room for doubt. If San Diego State coach Rocky Long hadn't been gracious (or foolish?) enough to test some theories about two-point conversions over extra points and going for it on fourth down, the Huskies might've been in real trouble.

But while this victory lacked style points, it also possessed some good substance. You can call it winning ugly, or you can call it winning a defensive fight. The Huskies haven't won too many of those in recent years. The fact this defense held onto an early 14-0 lead for the entire game is a huge first step to start the season. Sure, it came against San Diego State, not Notre Dame, but the Huskies ranked 106th of 120 teams in the Fooball Bowl Subdivision in total defense a year ago. Progress, against any opponent, shouldn't be ignored.

A dynamic blowout victory in which the Huskies showed all of their promise would've been more uplifting, but in the previous two openers, Sark's teams failed to impress and still went to a bowl. The expectations are a little higher for this team, and there's ample reason to fear the upcoming game with LSU could be ugly. But most of the Huskies' problems are fixable, including the special teams concerns involving the kicking game. As long as the offensive line can keep Price healthy, the offense will get better in a hurry. The Huskies don't seem to have the tools to be good in the run game, but perhaps they can compensate with some more of what we saw in the first half: the quick-hitting, short passes that are esentialy a substitute for run plays. Perhaps they'll be able to pass to set up the run a little bit. It's not as ideal as having a power run game to set up play-action passes, but Chris Polk is in the NFL now, and a new way that fits this personnel must emerge. You should be confident that Sarkisian will figure it out.

The only question is whether he'll figure it out in time for the Huskies to survive a rugged early-season schedule. That challenge begins this week. Rapid improvement is a must.


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