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USC Football Behind Enemy Lines - Q&A With Washington Writers

Aaron Fischman |
November 10, 2011 | 5:22 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian looks to win three straight against his former team (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images).
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian looks to win three straight against his former team (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images).

Led by former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian, the Washington Huskies are headed to L.A., where they hope to take down the Trojans for the third consecutive time.

This year’s Huskies have already ensured their bowl eligibility with a record of 6-3. 

Despite having lost quarterback Jake Locker to the NFL, the Huskies have thrived under first-year starter Keith Price. He’s thrown for 25 touchdowns, while completing nearly 67 percent of his passes.

Although Washington has lost to three highly ranked schools (Nebraska, Stanford, and Oregon), it has taken care of business against its six other, less talented opponents. 

Most recently, however, Washington’s normally high-achieving offense was shut down by the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks sacked Keith Price six times and held him to a season-low 143 passing yards.

Last season, the Huskies edged the Trojans 32-31 on a last-second 32-yard field goal from Erik Folk. USC’s Joe Houston had missed a 40-yarder moments earlier, with 2:39 remaining. Trojan running back Allen Bradford rushed for 223 yards in a losing effort. 

The Huskies also earned the head-to-head victory in 2009 when Erik Folk connected on the game-winning field goal to complete the 16-13 Washington victory. 

The Trojans also boast a Pac-12 record of 4-2, but they come into the game with a great deal of momentum. SC has won four of its last five contests, with its only loss coming against the mighty Stanford Cardinal in that triple-overtime thriller on October 29.

The team’s running game has significantly improved, but the Trojan passing attack has garnered attention from all over the country. In fact, quarterback Matt Barkley ranks third (along with Oklahoma’s Landry Jones) among FBS quarterbacks in passing touchdowns, behind Houston’s Case Keenum and Kellen Moore of Boise State. 

The junior signal caller has not indicated whether or not he will go pro at season’s end, but he has been absolutely phenomenal, especially since the team’s ugly loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils. Since that game, Barkley has thrown 18 touchdowns and a mere three interceptions.

On October 1, Barkley broke the Trojan franchise record for passing yards in a game by throwing for 468 yards against the Arizona Wildcats. He followed that up with a school-record six touchdowns against the Colorado Buffaloes last Friday.

To help us break down Saturday’s intriguing match-up between the Huskies and Trojans, Ryan Divish and Jacob Thorpe have graciously agreed to a brief Q&A session. 

Divish is the University of Washington football and basketball beat writer for the Tacoma News Tribune. Thorpe covers Huskies’ football and men’s basketball for the UW Daily.

1. Given the Huskies’ preseason expectations, how surprised, if at all, are you by the team’s strong 4-2 start to Pac-12 play?

Ryan Divish: I would say I’m moderately surprised. I really felt like this would be a 7-5 team. But that was mainly because Keith Price was an unproven commodity at quarterback and Washington was also going to be starting freshmen at both outside linebacker spots. But if you go back and look at the games, particularly Eastern Washington and California, this team could very easily be 4-5 right now.

Jacob Thorpe: More surprising than the Huskies’ record has been the manner in which they have won. I think most people who followed the team figured that UW would be good for about 6-8 wins this year, and they're right on pace for that. Following the Huskies’ performance in the Holiday Bowl last year, most assumed the team would win on the back of their strong running game and defense while hoping that Keith Price could be a "game manager" at quarterback.

Instead, the Huskies’ defense has been their Achilles heel this season, while Price is having one of the most productive seasons of any quarterback in school history.

(Aaron Babcock/Creative Commons)
(Aaron Babcock/Creative Commons)
2. In sophomore quarterback Keith Price’s first year as the everyday starter, he’s found a great level of individual success. How does he compare with the Huskies’ previous quarterback Jake Locker in terms of talent and style of play? What are Price’s strengths and weaknesses at quarterback?

RD: They are different in just about every way. Locker was a big strong athlete that came from a Wing-T system where he was used mostly as a runner. When he first got to Washington, there were times where he looked like a linebacker trying to play quarterback. But he had all the physical tools - the size, the speed, the strength and the cannon for an arm. Yet, he lacked a little feel for the game. His accuracy was spotty. He lacked touch on passes and struggled with other minor details that make a quarterback good.

Price isn’t like that. He’s always been a quarterback. He’s a kid that grew up playing quarterback and in a throwing system from the very beginning. Because of that, you can see the accuracy and touch on the mid-range passes. I’ve been surprised by his arm strength. It’s better than last year. He can make the throw across the field with plenty of velocity. A lot of people thought Price might be a running quarterback, but he doesn’t have straight-line speed like Locker. He’s more elusive and quick and will dance around in the pocket to buy time to make a throw – sometimes to his detriment.

His biggest weakness is a lack of game experience. He admittedly got caught up in the moment against Oregon trying to make big plays and forcing some passes and letting his emotion affect his play. He’s also been susceptible to injury. He’s sprained both knees, his left ankle and his non-throwing shoulder this season.

Even then, he’s still completely exceeded everyone’s expectations so far.

JT: While Price will probably never be nearly as highly coveted by NFL teams as Locker was during his time at the UW, he's almost inarguably already a better fit for Sarkisian's system. Locker was a fantastic athlete, especially for his size, and had a cannon for an arm. However, he wasn't particularly accurate and drives would stall because he would miss open receivers.

Price, on the other hand, is very accurate and has excellent vision downfield. Perhaps his most impressive attribute is his ability to keep his eyes downfield and complete a throw after the play has broken down. Price isn't the runner Locker is, although he is fairly light on his feet himself. He is quick enough to avoid the rush, and has superb feel of the pocket. However, he's been hampered this year by a pair of sprained knees, and won't be much of a threat running against USC.

3. Although Jermaine Kearse is likely the Huskies’ most polished receiver, Keith Price doesn’t really seem to have a single favorite target. What kind of flexibility does this afford the offense?

RD: The addition of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and the continued growth of the wide receiving corps has really benefited Sarkisian. It allows him to very flexible in his play calls, particularly using dozens of formations and incorporating pre-snap motion. It really can give defenses headaches. Sarkisian really isn’t limited to anything in his playbook because of all the versatility. He’s using everything, including a “wildcat” package as well.

JT: Price has really benefitted this year from the addition of Seferian-Jenkins. A favorite target of Price's, Seferian-Jenkins has NFL-ready size and athleticism right now, and puts quite a bit of pressure on the defense. Because of him, Devin Aguilar, Kevin Smith and freshman Kasen Williams, teams are rarely able to double-team Kearse, which allows him to use his size to outmuscle defenders on intermediate routes.

(Shotgun Spratling/Creative Commons)
(Shotgun Spratling/Creative Commons)
4. For the third straight year, junior running back Chris Polk has been a model of consistency for the Huskies. Discuss what Polk has meant to the team, both this season and throughout his collegiate career.

RD: Polk has meant everything to this team. He’s a reliable producer. He also brings a swagger and toughness to the team that has been missing in year’s past. The ferocious way he plays the game, never going down on first contact and punishing tacklers is contagious and the team really feeds off it. Having a running back that you know will give you 100 yards rushing on most nights allows Sarkisian to play off that, particularly with play-action on first down. It also makes things easier if Price is out of rhythm. It happened earlier and Sarkisian went right to Polk for six straight carries.

JT: Polk is on pace to become Washington's all-time leading rusher in his junior season, and even if he doesn't, he should still go down as the best running back in school history. Not only has already put up three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons behind no offensive line to speak of, he's brought the program out of the cellar with his play.

He is more responsible for the UW's resurgence than any other individual player. What he means to this year's team is that the team absolutely knows it will have a rushing presence. No matter what else goes wrong, the Huskies are going to have some sort of running game, and the defense will wear out by the second half from having to deal with Polk's physical play.

5. In the team’s final game at 91-year-old Husky Stadium before the scheduled renovation, Oregon’s defense gave the Huskies serious problems. Washington was held to 278 total yards of offense. Even worse, Keith Price passed for just 143 yards, fewer than six yards per completion. Going forward, what can the team learn from its offensive struggles against Oregon?

RD: Simply put, the Huskies played pretty poorly. They made uncharacteristic mistakes, particularly on the offensive line, which gave up six sacks in the game. Sarkisian chalked it up to one bad game. While that may be true, the offensive line has some serious issues, particularly on the right side where sophomore guard Colin Porter and sophomore tackle Erik Kohler have both looked slow and overwhelmed at times. Most of the mistakes – dropped passes, dumb penalties and missed blocking assignments – are easily fixable. But the lack of athleticism on the right side of the offensive line is something the Huskies will have to just suffer through the rest of the season, since there really is no quality depth at the position. You could see UW go to more two-tight end sets to try and help them out.

JT: The team learned just how far it still has to go to be back as one of the truly elite teams in the conference. While Oregon's offense was highly touted coming into the match, it was the Ducks’ defense that showed the Huskies just what makes UO an elite team. 

Not only were they faster than UW, they were more physical as well. The Huskies learned that they need to get a lot tougher, especially along the lines.

6. In each of Washington’s three losses (all against Top 25 opponents), the Huskies have surrendered more than 200 rushing yards. How do the Huskies plan to contain the Trojans’ talented running game, led by speedy junior Curtis McNeal?  

RD: At this point, I think defensive coordinator Nick Holt would take any suggestions. The defensive line is a little undersized on the edges, and they’ve shuffled players in and out of the defensive end and defensive tackle positions trying to find combinations that will work. A larger problem is the outside linebackers. Washington rotates in three freshmen and a sophomore at those positions, and the inexperience has proven costly. Bad angles, poor tackling and just being overwhelmed physically have allowed teams to run the football on them. They are just going to have play McNeal straight up. They can’t afford to walk the safety up closer to the line of scrimmage because Barkley will cut them apart.

JT: If I knew how, I'd probably be a defensive coach. From the coaches' comments throughout the year, it sounds like they were expecting the defensive line to be the catalyst to a strong rushing defense. So far, that hasn't really materialized, and the problems were compounded when starting defensive end Hauoli Jamora was injured for the season.

Washington has some very young linebackers who, while athletic, are constantly out of position. How well Holt is able guess USC's plays and keep them in position will go a long way to determining whether or not the Huskies will be able to slow down USC's ground game.

(Culture Shlock/Creative Commons)
(Culture Shlock/Creative Commons)

7. As previously noted, Price is having a tremendous season, especially for a first-year starting quarterback. To his credit, Barkley ranks third in the nation in passing touchdowns and has thrown 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions over his last five games. For the Huskies to pull of the road upset, must Price outperform Barkley? Why or why not?

RD: I don’t know if Price has to outperform Barkley, but the offense will have to outperform USC’s offense. At this point in the season, the Huskies know they don’t have the defense to hold an opponent like USC to under 24 points. They know every game is going to be a shootout where they need to score at least 30 points to have a chance at winning. The Husky offense is actually predicated more off of Polk than Price. His runs and presence force defenses to do things that open things up for Price and the passing game.

8. Sarkisian said Monday that if he were an NFL coach, he would pick Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck. What do you make of these comments, coming from the man who personally recruited Barkley?

JT: When he made that comment on Monday it stunned the press room. After giving it some time, it seems like most reporters believe it was a bit of gamesmanship on Sarkisian's part. While he was doubtlessly trying to pay a compliment to a quarterback he greatly admires, as well as impress upon his team how talented their foe is, he may have also been trying to make up for Holt's controversial comments comparing USC to Oregon.

9. From Washington’s perspective, what are the keys to victory this upcoming Saturday?

RD: The basic keys would be to win the turnover battle since the defense isn’t good enough to get consistent stops in a conventional way. They need to get 25 productive carries from Polk, meaning he has at least 100 yards. And they have to protect Price in the pocket. He never had any sort of time in the pocket against Oregon to set up and go through his progressions.

JT: For Washington, this game will be all about the turnover margin. If the Huskies can maximize their possessions and keep USC's offense off the field, the Trojans could be in for a battle. However, if USC gets a few turnovers early and capitalizes, then the game could get out of hand in a hurry.

I don't know whether it's the types of plays the Huskies run, or their personnel on offense, but when the Huskies give up turnovers, they're usually big ones. What I mean is, the interceptions Price has thrown are often returned for a huge chunk of yards, if not for a touchdown. Because of this, it's all the more important that UW keeps the ball out of the hands of USC's defense.

Woods, Lee, and McNeal have been huge assets for Matt Barkley (James Santelli/Creative Commons)
Woods, Lee, and McNeal have been huge assets for Matt Barkley (James Santelli/Creative Commons)
10. Who do you think will win Saturday’s match-up between the Huskies and Trojans? 

RD: I think USC will win. The Trojans are playing at such a high level offensively. Washington has not been able to generate much of a pass rush this season, and if Barkley has time, he will carve up the Washington secondary. Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are too good, particularly if they are lined up on Quinton Richardson. They will take advantage of that matchup all game. The Huskies will score some points, but it won’t be nearly enough. USC 38, Washington 24.

JT: This will be the most talented team Sarkisian has had facing USC, and he won the first two times. That being said, there's no way USC overlooks this game, and it's at home. As well as Sarkisian seems to coach against the Trojans, I just don't see the Huskies pulling this one out.

Call it USC, 38-31

Thanks again to Ryan Divish and Jacob Thorpe.

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