Know Thy Enemy: Nebraska vs Washington Q&A

SB Nation's Washington site is UWDawgpound.com and in order to know more about the state of this year's Washington team, Corn Nation sat down (in a figurative sense) with Brad Johnson, otherwise known as "Sundodger" , and asked some questions about what Husker fans could expect this Saturday. 

Through two games, Washington is ranked near the bottom in several passing statistics. Given the teams they've played that's understandable, but what are we to make of the fact that the Huskies are dead last in opponents third down conversions?

It's as simple as the fact that the Huskies haven't been good on third down.  Really bad, when you get down to it.  It's something that the coaching staff has identified as an obvious factor that needs to be improved upon on Saturday.  If the Dawgs are as bad on Saturday as they've been the last two weeks, it's going to be a long game. 

The only positive that you can take from a stat like that is that the defense has, hopefully, learned some tough lessons, and they haven't cost anything in terms of wins and losses.  Yet.

Those two games tell us nearly nothing about Washington's ability to stop the run. How confident are you that the defense can stop Nebraska's rush, and who are the key defensive players involved?

I have next to no confidence that the Dawgs are going to be able to completely stop Nebraska's running attack.  Hopefully, the D can slow it down enough that maybe the ‘Huskers get a little impatient and think about throwing the ball when they don't necessarily have to.  That, and minimizing the big plays that killed the Dawgs in the first game last season. Nebraska will get their yards.  Make them take it in small bites instead of huge chunks. 

The key players:  DT Alameda Ta'amu at the nose.  He has to be able to hold his ground and occupy two blockers on every play.  He won't have a ton of statistics in a game like this, but he can be disruptive.  Both outside linebackers are very inexperienced.  John Timu is a true freshman making his third start, and Princeton Fuiamaono is a true soph making his fourth start.  Those guys have to play fast, but not too reckless. 

They have to turn Burkhead and Martinez back into the middle, where MLB Cort Dennison is a sure tackler.  The danger with those young guys is that if they play hesitant (like they did the first game of the season), Nebraska runs around them.  If they're overly aggressive, Nebraska works cutbacks or misdirection. 

Sean Parker is an aggressive tackler at the strong safety spot.  Haouli Jamora is a high-motor guy that pursues well from his weak end spot and can make plays.  The Dawgs really need the three-tech tackle next to Ta'amu (it's been almost exclusively Everette Thompson to this point) to step up big, and the end on the strong side to make some plays.  That position will be manned by some combination of freshman Andrew Hudson and junior Talia Crichton.

Nebraska's first two opponents loaded the box and dared Taylor Martinez to throw the ball - which he ultimately did, punishing Fresno State with some big gains. Do you expect Washington's defense to do the same, and if they do, are you worried about your defensive backs' ability to cover Husker receivers?

Sort of a pick your poison approach, I guess.  The Huskies have been fairly conservative so far this season.  They've forced teams to beat them repeatedly for short gains instead of gambling and risking giving up lots of yards in one play.  This might be a game that changes that strategy.  Nebraska's receivers are fairly good, but the level of sophistication of their passing game isn't terribly high.  There's definitely some logic in trying to force the ‘Huskers to make plays through the air. 

When it's all said and done, though, I expect the Dawgs will play the run aggressively, but will still be a bit more conservative against the pass in terms of how much they'll sell out with blitzes and man coverage.  The front will get after Martinez as much as possible, but I think the Dawgs would rather force him to beat them with long, sustained drives as opposed to the quick-hitters Nebraska has feasted on last year and so far this year.  Pressuring Martinez too much is a double-edged sword - you might get him and get a sack, or get him to put the ball into coverage, or maybe even put it on the ground.  But you might also give him a running lane that he exploits for a long scramble. 

Jake Locker is gone, replaced with Keith Price. Tell us about Price - is he mobile? Is he accurate? As first-year starters go, how's he doing?

Price definitely isn't Jake Locker as a runner, but he's an elusive guy.  He isn't going to pull the ball down and scramble, but he's shown that he's adept at moving within the pocket to avoid pressure.  After two games, his passer rating is over 180. Granted, he's making a big step up in competition, but he started last season against Oregon and didn't suffer a sack or interception against a defense that was out to make him make mistakes. 

After two games, his TD-to-INT ratio is 7:1.  I don't think Husky fans expected that. He's spread the ball around to multiple receivers in each game, and the fact is, he's got a deep receiving corps and a bona fide receiving threat at tight end.  Having Chris Polk in the backfield means that he hasn't had to win games on his own thus far, but he's shown that he can make big plays to set the tempo of a game. 

His arm strength is average at best, but he looks to have great timing to mitigate the fact that he can't wing the ball in to tight spaces the way a guy like Jake Locker could.  He hasn't shown that he can make some of the big boy throws, like the deep out that has to travel 30 yards on a line, but he's confident, he's poised, and his teammates respond very positively to him.  The biggest thing for him this week is how he responds to his receivers not being in the same spot at the same time he's used to due to the physical play of Nebraska's corners.  That play can really disrupt the timing of a passing game for a new QB making a start in a tough road venue.

Nebraska should come out and focus on stopping Chris Polk from running the ball. How does Washington counter?

Play action passing, and a tight end that can stretch the middle of the field.  The Dawgs thought they had that tight end last season until he was dismissed right before the season started.  As it turned out, opposing coaches noted the fact that they didn't have to cover the middle of the field against the Dawgs due to the lack of a tight end.  Austin Sefarian-Jenkins is a true freshman, but he's big, athletic, and has very good speed for his size.  He'll make his fair share of mistakes in blocking in the running game, but he's already shown that he's a threat as a receiver down the field.  If the Huskies are competitive, Sefarian-Jenkins and/or Michael Hartvigson will have had a big part in it.

How do you feel about having Colorado in the Pac-12? Did the conference really need more hippies?

Yes. 

The Pac 10 was always at least one hippie school short of a Phish concert.  In fact, there have been hippie undercurrents in every single iteration of the Pac (Whatever) conference.  Those rumblings grew to a roar in recent decades, until there could be no denying that the conference's all-star hippie band could've easily opened for a long-weekend Dave Mathews show.  It became clear that a school like Colorado just had to be made a member. 

You may or may not know that the conference's motto has been "The Conference of Champions" for as long as I can remember.  What you likely don't know is that it's always been selected by a narrow margin over "The Conference of Hippies." 

Well, with the addition of the Buffs, that old argument was brought up again.  A motion was made.  After several hours of heated debate, it was determined that one, single, final vote should be made.  By a count of 6-5, "The Conference of Champions" motto was retained.  As it turned out, Cal didn't make the meeting to vote because its Ultimate Frisbee game went into double overtime, and after the post game meal of Ben and Jerry's, salami, and licorice whips, it simply forgot to show up.  So yes, Colorado fits right in.

If Steve Sarkisian had to drive to Lincoln, Nebraska instead of just fly into Lincoln or Omaha, what do you think he'd marvel at the most as he made his way across Nebraska?

The diverse scenery.  And the proximity to Austin, TX.

Should we do predictions? 

 Nebraska 28, Dawgs 20.  Too much defense for the Huskies to overcome, and the ‘Husker offense does enough to win comfortably.  Heart? Dawgs make Martinez pay for putting the ball in the turf for the first time this season.  Make a play the passing game as well.  Price isn't rattled by the hostile crowd, and Chris Polk picks up where he left off in San Diego.  If I was betting real money, I'd take the ‘Huskers.  I think they're  going to be too strong and too fast for the Huskies right now.  In all honesty, a good Nebraska program is good for college football.  I've always been a fan of the Big Red.  And I wish you guys the best of luck this season after Saturday.

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