Opening weekend 2009, No. 11 LSU traveled up to Seattle to face Coach Steve Sarkisian in his Washington Huskies’ coaching debut. Behind 321 passing yards from versatile quarterback Jake Locker, Washington kept the game much closer than anticipated before eventually falling to the Tigers, 31-23. In that game, Washington’s offense out gained the Tigers, 478 yards to 321, but two turnovers by Washington and three timely touchdown passes by LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson proved to be too much for the Huskies.
Fast-forward three years, and we have a rematch down in the Bayou. Washington, a program looking for a signature victory in their quest to take the next step, hopes to defy the odds-makers and escape Tiger Stadium with a victory against perennial powerhouse LSU. While several things must go the Huskies way for such an unlikely outcome to occur, Week 1 showed us an upset is not completely out of the realm of possibilities. Here’s what must occur is the Huskies are going to have a chance:
If the Huskies are going to survive Death Valley, they are going to have to once again get off to a fast start. Last week against San Diego State, an early turnover set the stage for the Husky offense to march just 35 yards before scoring their opening touchdown. That touchdown took place just five and a half minutes into the first quarter. On the Huskies’ second possession, the offense went nine plays and 62 yards to score again and take an early, commanding 14-0 lead.
Last season, Washington’s dynamic quarterback Keith Price showed his big-time talent in the Alamo Bowl against Baylor, when he picked the Bears apart going 23-for-37 for 438 yards, and four touchdowns. In the first two drives against San Diego State, Price picked up where he left off last season; he went a solid 11 of 12 for 88 yards (7.3 per pass) and a touchdown. However, after those first drives he completed just 14 of 23 for 134 yards (5.8). If Washington is going to have to any shot at an upset, repeating this early explosion is just what the Huskies will need to do to quiet the renowned Tiger Stadium crowd.
Big Targets Make Big Plays
Last week’s game versus San Diego State featured two main targets in the Huskies’ passing attack. Sophomore tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and sophomore wide receiver Kasen Williams were targeted 21 times out of Price’s 35 attempts. While the two reeled in a combined fifteen of those targets, there simply weren’t a lot of big plays between the two.
Struggling to run the ball, the Huskies used the monster-sized Seferian-Jenkins as an extension of their running game. Lining him up outside against smaller cornerbacks, Washington was able to use Seferian-Jenkins’ 6’6, 268-pound frame to create mismatches in space. Of Seferian-Jenkins’ nine catches, four of them were on quick hitches that gained a total of 25 yards. Furthermore, all four quick hitches came on first downs. Essentially, Washington used these quick hitches as bona fide run plays that gained 6.3 yards per attempt.
But it seems unlikely Washington will find success by slowly and methodically moving the ball up and down the field against the Tigers’ defense. After all, this is a Tigers’ defense that gave up just 2.2 yards per carry in their opener, and Washington will not want to find themselves in a lot of second- or third-and-longs. To counter this, Washington is going to have to depend on the big play. In giving up touchdown passes of 80 yards and 15 yards last week, LSU showed that they were not quite up to mid-season form.
If Washington is going to have a shot at an upset, getting their playmakers to be more than just an extension of the run game is a must. The Huskies must find ways to match up their two talented sophomores against LSU’s young secondary and come away with a handful of big gains. Given Washington’s shaky offensive front and LSU’s dominant front-seven, Keith Price will likely be on the move a lot. Be it on bootlegs, rollouts, or just old-fashioned scrambles, Washington’s receiving corps must win some one-on-one battles downfield as Price creates extra chances with his legs.
Stop the Run
As plain and simple as it sounds, the final key for Washington is their ability to slow down LSU’s vaunted rushing attack. If Week 1 was any indicator, the Huskies can expect to see a whole lot of ground-and-pound from the Tigers.
Against San Diego State, Washington’s pass defense came to play (128 yards passing, just 4.6 per pass attempt) but their run defense was shaky at best. San Diego State rushed the ball 40 times for 199 yards and was consistently able to convert on third-and-short situations via their running game.
Unfortunately for Washington, LSU, who is coming off a game in which they successfully rushed 46 times for 316 yards, probably noticed the same thing on the game tape. New Washington defensive coordintor Justin Wilcox, formerly of Tennessee, knows all about the Tigers’ strong ground game. In last year’s match up in Knoxville, LSU pounded away at Wilcox’s defense for 237 yards on the ground in LSU’s 38-7 thumping of the Vols. Hopefully for Husky fans, Wilcox’s unit can clean up its mistakes from last week and keep the Tigers from having long, sustained drives that chew up the clock.
Overall, there is a reason LSU is a 20+ point favorite going into this game: they are really, really good. They pound the ball with the best of them, they defend as well as anyone, and have one of the best home field advantages in the nation. But other than that, it should be a cakewalk for the Huskies, right?
If the Huskies have any shot to pull off such a huge upset, they must start fast, get big plays from their studs, and somehow slow down LSU’s running attack. Absent of those three things, there is little to lead one to believe Washington stands a shot in one of this week’s big games.