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The Huskies are widely acknowledged http://bit.ly/2e5s68S">to be the most dangerous opponent yet for the Utes, and it seems they are a far cry from the team Utah beat by 11 in Seattle last year. What's changed for Washington both on the field and off and why have they been so successful?
To answer some of these questions, I tapped Christian Caple of the Tacoma News Tribune. Caple covers Huskies football and basketball for the paper, and http://www.thenewstribune.com/sports/college/pac-12/university-of-washington/">you can find his stories by clicking here, and you can follow him https://twitter.com/ChristianCaple">on Twitter @ChristianCaple.
Here's what he had to say:
1. Jake Browning is second http://www.espn.com/blog/statsinfo/post/_/id/125378/jake-browning-driving-washington-into-playoff-discussion">in the latest ESPN Heisman poll and has impressed with his efficiency (26 TDs/2 INTs, 68.6 completion percentage). What steps has he taken since Utah saw him last year to become one of the best quarterbacks in the country?
Christian Caple: Chris Petersen mentioned a few times during spring and fall camp that one of the biggest factors in Browning taking a step forward this year would be the growth of everyone else around him, and I think we've seen that. The offensive line is much better in pass protection. John Ross and Dante Pettis have turned into one of the best receiver duos in the Pac-12. The running game has been productive. All of that has helped put Browning in an optimal situation where he typically has time to throw, and he's doing it in a multi-dimensional offense that has done a good job of keeping defenses guessing. And of course he's been very accurate, has made good decisions, and has made efficient use of his legs when he's had to scramble.
2. There's not a better 1-2 punch at running back than Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman. What have their roles been, and why is Washington's rushing attack so successful thus far, including in the one close game the Huskies played against Arizona?
CC: After setting UW's freshman rushing record last season, Gaskin entered this year as the primary back, and he's on pace for a similar statistical season to what he did in 2015. Coleman has been a pleasant surprise. He was third-string last year behind Gaskin and Dwayne Washington, but has shown some really good burst and maybe a little better speed than people were expecting. He really bailed them out with a couple of long runs in the Arizona game, and has developed into a really nice complement to Gaskin, even if he only gets a handful of carries per game.
3. Washington's defense is leading the Pac-12 and is fourth in the country in sacks. How much of that reflects the personnel that they have on the defensive line, and how much of that is thanks to coverage from a secondary that some have called the country's best?
CC: Ask UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski this season, and he'll tell you they go hand in hand. Certainly, the Huskies are getting consistent pressure from their defensive interior. Elijah Qualls, Vita Vea and Greg Gaines all played nose tackle last season, but they branched those guys out this year to get them all on the field at the same time. Combined with solid production from Joe Mathis (who is now injured) and Psalm Wooching at the outside linebacker positions, the Huskies have done a great job of getting pressure on the quarterback without having to rush more than four or five guys. And as you mentioned, a lot of that has to do with their talented secondary. Opposing quarterbacks have barely thrown the ball in Sidney Jones' direction, for example, so UW's pass rush numbers are always going to look better when there's a cornerback essentially eliminating an entire portion of the field.
4. The Huskies defense is No. 6 in the Pac-12 against the run, with about 145 yards per game from opponents. With http://www.thenewstribune.com/sports/college/pac-12/university-of-washington/article110386842.html">Joe Williams coming off a record-setting game against UCLA, what are the match-up concerns for UW and what is the key to stopping Utah's run threat?
CC: Kwiatkowski says it's simply a matter of execution that Utah doesn't do anything fancy offensively, that there aren't any secrets to the Utes' scheme, but that if the Huskies don't fit their gaps and play their assignments, Williams might go off on them like he did against Oregon State and UCLA. Certainly, they have an eye on containing the big play, which obviously showed up a bunch against the Bruins. If they can keep Williams "in the chute," as Huskies coaches say, I think that will force Troy Williams to throw the ball more and try to make some plays in the pass game. So, UW's massive defensive interior needs to step up. This is the kind of physical, run-first matchup that Qualls, Vea and Gaines were built for.
5. http://www.thenewstribune.com/sports/college/pac-12/university-of-washington/article110634472.html#navlink=SecList">You wrote about Troy Williams who obviously has some harsh feelings for Chris Petersen still. From your vantage, how difficult was it for Steve Sarkisian's players to adjust to the culture Petersen wanted to establish? And how have the guys who stayed found common ground with this coaching staff to be so successful this year?
CC: There were certainly some rough times, especially in Petersen's first season. You'll recall that he kicked star cornerback Marcus Peters off the team following several clashes with the new staff. He dismissed a few other players, too. And there are some guys who are still on the roster who have admitted it wasn't easy for them, either. Mathis has talked a few times about not buying in right away, and considering leaving UW before ultimately sticking it out and eventually realizing that Petersen knew what he was doing. There are probably a few other stories similar to that. I know Petersen has credited seniors Kevin King and Darrell Daniels as being really important figures in the locker room, as far as preaching the new staff's philosophies and making sure their teammates are all on the same page. Most of the Sarkisian recruits who are key contributors to this team play defense, and that side of the ball has been pretty solid since Petersen's arrival, so maybe that made it easier for those guys to really believe in the new staff right away. But it does seem that now in Year 3, the adjustment pains seem to be in the rearview, which is about the timeline Petersen expected.
Thanks for playing, Christian.
See you all on Saturday.