Washington opens up the season on the road against what has become the doormat of the Big East, the Syracuse Orange. Syracuse like Washington is in year three of a rebuilding program under a new coach, and will also be an improved team this year. How improved is the question that will be answered on Friday night.
The first game of the season for two young team's with new quarterbacks is pretty hard to predict. It is even harder to predict when the media has had little access to practice during the Spring, and Fall. You have to go with your gut this time of the year, and hopefully if you are a Husky fan I will be right in my assumptions.
When Syracuse has the Ball
Look for Syracuse to try to air it out against Washington, and overwhelm it's undermanned secondary. Vonzell McDowell is going to be a very busy man on Friday as Syracuse QB Andrew Robinson tests him early. Byron Davenport isn't going to make the trip, so young Vonzell is going to be out there all night. The Orange likes to run a West Coast style offense, and while it is nothing the Huskies haven't seen before, look for them to try to take advantage of the legendary Baer cushion. That means a lot of routes with 4-5 wide receivers trying to play possession football. Look for Syracuse to run plenty of routes 12 yards, or less. Andrew Robinson can throw it, and wide receivers Taj Smith, Lavar Lobdel, and Mike Williams can catch it, and go.
The Syracuse running game is basically crippled right now. The knee of starting Syracuse running back Curtis Brinkley is still an issue. Listed backups Paul Chiara (59 yards on 17 carries last season) and Jeremy Sellers, a senior who has no carries the past two seasons, don't appear dangerous at all. What this means is Syracuse is going to have to pass quite a bit to stay in the game. Tight End is another black hole for the Orange who had to move over Mike Owen from defense to fill the void.
Washington's veteran defensive line needs to take the heat off the defensive backfield. UW's speedy LB's are going to need to help cover those intermediate routes. I think we will see Syracuse put the ball in the air 40 or more times on Friday night. The Orange are breaking in a rookie QB who is starting his first game, forcing him to make mistakes, and converting those mistakes into points will be the formula for success. Syracuse doesn't have a great offensive line, and that should allow UW to get to Robinson all night.
When Washington has the Ball
Washington is going to look a lot like West Virginia did last year from a play calling perspective. UW is going to try to control the game on the ground ,and not put the outcome completely on Montlake Jake's shoulders. Lockers strong point at this time is running the football, and look for him to net 10-15 carries in the opener. The option/pitch in some form will be back at UW this year, and the Huskies plan to give Orange defense fits with their mobile quarterback. Syracuse has a very active front four, but that can be negated by a mobile QB.
The Husky receivers are a veteran group, and look for them to go over the middle a lot more on Friday than they have in previous seasons with Stanback at the helm. Syracuse's LB's are very vulnerable, and UW will try to avert the strong Syracuse pass rush by using the TE's, and FB's a lot more in this game. Don't forget the long ball, UW is going to use it early to help stretch the field.
TB Louis Rankin is going to carry most of the rushing load on Friday. He is capable of knocking off a couple long gainers in every game he plays. The key of course will be the blocking ahead of him. Look for UW to run the option with success and keep the Syracuse defense on their toes. The backup is undetermined at this time, but watch for the debut of at least Johnson, and Shaw, along with Hasty. The Fullbacks are going to be a big factor. We have two guys that can run, clock, and catch. UW is going to unveil this portion of the offense and Friday, and if it clicks it will be a big plus.
Last year, the Orange allowed 399 yards and 24.6 points per game so Washington should be able to move the ball all night on these guys, the question is can they convert those yards into points.
Syracuse's special teams are more stable, while Washington's are unproven coming into the year. UW is counting on Brandon Johnson to give them a boost returning the ball on kickoff's, while veteran Anthony Russo will handle the punts. There is a lot of uncertainty concerning kicking as UW replaces both of last years specialists. The spotlight will be on Ballman, and Perkins to see if they are able to handle the job.
Syracuse is going to be able to put together a pass rush, how well Locker handles it will determine the outcome of the game. Even though Syracuse isn't a great team, they like all teams have their strength's, so the UW offensive line is going to be tested. Syracuse DE Jameel McClain, who had 69 tackles (9½ sacks) last season. UW needs to find a way to keep him away from Jake.
Turnovers can always be a huge factor in any game. UW needs to force them, and not give them up. UW's defense has a goal to more than double it's turnovers this season, and it all starts on Friday night.
The Huskies will have just five players listed as cornerbacks available for the Syracuse game, Starters Roy Lewis and Vonzell McDowell Jr., backups Matt Mosley and Desmond Davis, and Marquis Persley. Persley was a surprise addition after Byron Davenport wasn't able to make the trip because of his hamstring. If Washington suffers some more injuries at CB during the game it is going to get real interesting. Willingham earlier this week said Persley wasn't far enough along to be ready, so expect him to be available only in emergency.
The Carrier Dome is going to be loud, hot, and poorly lit. The Orange are used to it, while Washington is going to have to make some adjustments. Locker has experience in the Tacoma Dome, but the Carrier Dome with it's inflatable roof is a whole different animal.
Why Washington Will Win
I think Washington should beat Syracuse if we get enough pressure on Andrew Robinson. The table is set, UW doesn't really have to worry about defending a running game, and whatever they do muster on the ground, the Huskies should shut down with ease.
The key to the game is forcing Robinson to throw some picks, and complete less than 50% of his passes. Gunheim, Stevens, Rayford, and Teo Nesheim should be able to get to the QB. Sacks are going to be a big factor in this one. Rattle the young QB early, and put him on his backside.
Offensively UW needs to take care of the ball, and spread the workload among the skill players. They need to eliminate mistakes, take what Syracuse gives you on the ground, and control the time of possession. Running the ball and creating balance on offense is what Washington needs to do to win this one. Locker is surrounded by veterans, no reason that he has to do everything himself.
Washington is going to win this one because of offensive balance. They are going to be able to keep Syracuse off balance all night. Syracuse on the other hand won't have balance on offense. They have to pass to move the ball, and the more you put it in the air, the more the defense can come at you. I think our speed at linebacker will be the key to stopping the short passing game.
UW's secondary is going to be tested, they are going to give up some yards, but on paper Washington just has a lot more tools than Syracuse on both sides of the ball.
Why Syracuse Will Win
The Orange can pull off the mild upset if they are able to get some balance on offense. If Robinson can keep the Huskies off balance, complete 60% of his passes, and if they can get enough of a running game going to keep UW honest, they have a good chance in this one.
The Syracuse defense will have to step up, and shut down the Washington running game which would put the game on Jake Locker's young shoulders. Young QB's are prone to make mistakes, and turnovers can turn things around pretty quickly for the underdog. If you take away Washington's balance you put them in peril.
Syracuse seems to have an advantage in the special teams area because Washington is bringing in almost a completely new set of specialists. The history of special teams during the Willingham era has been spotty to say the least. In a close game missed field goals, PAT's, and shanked punts can turn victory into defeat pretty quickly.
What do I think?
I am predicting a 27-17 win for the men in Purple, and Gold. I think Washington has a lot more tools on offense than Syracuse does. I also think we have a better front seven on defense coupled with their poor offensive line which should give our DB's a break on Friday.