Every week, we talk to a writer, or editor, or fan, or general person associated with the Arizona Wildcats’ upcoming opponent. This week, we spoke with UW Dawg Pound’s John Sayler about Jake Browning’s development, the Washington Huskies’ defense, and John’s prediction for this week’s match-up.
Last season, Jake Browning finished ninth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency, which is pretty middle of the road. This season, though, he has been the most efficient passer in the conference (at least so far). How has Browning managed to mature so much so quickly?
John Sayler: The honest answer to this question is: We don't know how much he has matured... yet. Last season, Browning was very efficient against lesser teams (including a depleted Arizona defense last October). This season, he has been absolutely lights out against a bad Big Ten team, an average Sun Belt team, and an FCS squad. Until he plays this way against the tougher teams in the conference, the jury is still out on his development. That said, he has looked better this season than he did in the games where he was effective in 2015. One of the reasons Washington has been a preseason darling is that the quarterback play from a true freshman signal caller was pretty solid last season, and it is natural to assume that in his second season he will show growth and development. That has so far been the case. He is bigger and stronger from a physical standpoint, and appears to have a greater command of the offense making adjustments at the line of scrimmage. I don't think many Husky fans doubt that Browning is going to be a great quarterback, the question is: How far has he come? This week's game should be a good measuring stick.
Washington currently leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense. Is that a function of the competition the Huskies have faced this year, a function of how good the defense is, or a little bit of both?
John Sayler: Both. As I mentioned above, the competition has not been great so far for the Huskies. Obviously the defensive numbers would not be as gaudy had the opponents been Clemson and Louisville. Still, the UW defense is good. Last season, they led the Pac-12 in total defense, and that unit returns 16 of the 20 key players. Six of the best players on the defense are in their junior seasons so the team now has a veteran nucleus rather than being led by freshmen and sophomores. About 22 players have played prior to garbage time in the first three games, which is consistent with what we saw last season in terms of heavy rotation on defense. The Husky defense will give up some yards and some first downs, but they do a great job of keeping things in front of them and really stiffen when the opponent approaches the red zone.
Besides the obvious names - Browning and Budda Baker, for example - which Huskies do you think will play a prominent role in this week's match-up?
John Sayler: Running back Myles Gaskin has yet to really get rolling this season, and he was UW's best offensive player a year ago rolling up over 1,300 yards as a true freshman. I would expect him to get a lot of carries. He tends to get better as the game goes on, and with all of UW's games essentially over in the second quarter this season, he hasn't had much of a chance for his typical strong second half performance. Wide receivers John Ross and Chico McClatcher are speedsters on the outside with big play potential, and have been big contributors so far this season. Dante Pettis is the "steady Eddy" wideout with deceptive speed and athleticism.
Baker is definitely the leader of the defense, but picking the best player on that side of the ball would be a lengthy discussion. Linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria are phenomenal. The defensive line boasts three all-conference caliber players in DT Elijah Qualls and NTs Greg Gaines & Vita Vea. Most experts consider the secondary to be the strongest part of the defense. Hard to argue that with preseason All-American Baker at free safety and All-Pac-12 corner Sidney Jones leading a deep and talented back-end.
What is your prediction for this game?
John Sayler: I said during fall camp that this game was the most important of the season. It's the first quality opponent on the schedule and the Pac-12 opener being played in a hostile environment. If the Huskies cannot beat Arizona this weekend, all the hype may turn out to be just that. Dawkins is a dual-threat with great speed, and how UW is able to contain him will be a huge factor.
Washington 34, Arizona 24
Thanks to John for taking the time to answer our questions this week, and for more coverage of this game from the Huskies’ side of the fence, be sure to check out UW Dawg Pound.