Color me the copycat of the Seattle Times. Still, seems like as good a time as any for my thoughts on the Dawgs.
I haven’t been a fan of the purple and gold all my life; indeed, I only started being a fan when I enrolled back in 1999. I was there for Marques Tuiasosopo’s final two years, so right there I got to root for a legend and one of the greatest Huskies of all time. I got to go to a few games in the student section, so that was always fun. But, in the years since that memorable run to 11-1 and a Rose Bowl victory in 2000, there hasn’t really been a ton to be excited about.
However, with the hiring of coach Sark, my passion for this football team has increased exponentially. I’ve become a regular at Husky Stadium – and especially at the Husky tailgates – and I’ve got to say there isn’t anything quite as fun as drunkenly standing and yelling for three hours on a Saturday afternoon.
This year, the Dawgs are coming off of a 7-6 campaign highlighted by running the table in the final three games in as exciting a fashion as you could possibly imagine (the Blackout on Thursday night vs. UCLA; the 4th & goal goalline plunge by Chris Polk at Cal; and the 35-28 shootout in the Apple Cup). Our Holiday Bowl thrashing of Nebraska was more thrilling than the 19-7 score indicated. In two years we’ve gone from one of the very worst programs in all of college football to a return to prominence in the newly-formed Pac-12. As a Husky fan, you have to love what we’re doing with our recruiting, but even so 2011 is still somewhat of a transition year.
While the team overall looks to be improved across the board, it’s undeniable that we’ve taken a step back at quarterback, the most important position on the team. Say what you will about Jake Locker’s accuracy, I’ll counter that by saying that he was plagued by drops throughout his career. Even then, he was a consummate leader with a passion for winning on par with other Husky legends like Tui, Steve Emtman, and the Huard brothers. These guys would kill themselves if it meant a W on Saturday.
It’s these kinds of intangibles that will ultimately distinguish Jake Locker’s senior season from Keith Price’s first season as the starter. But, make no mistake, Keith Price is the man. He earned his job this year by being the best quarterback on this team, bar none. And, on a pure talent-level, Keith Price isn’t much of a drop off from Locker. He’s got a strong arm, he’s got the ability to scramble and elude pressure, and I feel he’s got the talent around him to succeed.
I’m pretty sure we’re returning 4 of 5 starting offensive linemen. That kind of consistency is bound to be an upgrade over last year. And especially when you consider how well they played in the last four games of last season, I have to feel confident in their ability to pass protect (and even more confident in their ability to run block).
We’ve got Chris Polk back, along with Jesse Callier and some real strong younger guys who weren’t on this team a year ago. Granted, Polk’s injury and subsequent surgery that will likely force him to miss next week’s game against Eastern Washington is more than a little bothersome, I don’t think there’s any way this keeps him off the field for too much longer. Chris Polk is the strongest running back I’ve seen come through here in the last decade; he’s a difference-maker that’s going to bring more than just balance to this offense. He’s going to be our leader in the backfield that keeps opposing offenses off the field while racking up a serious amount of yardage and touchdowns for our own.
And what better way to introduce a red-shirt sophomore to his first season as a starter than with our corps of receivers. Jermaine Kearse was an absolute force for Jake Locker (in spite of his very public case of the dropsies). In his last two years, he’s caught over 100 balls for over 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. He’s a big target who is going into his senior season. Look for him to make even more of an impact this year in hopes to raise his draft stock for the NFL. Devin Aguilar is a senior on the other side who has become the epitome of consistency. Kasen Williams is one of our hotshot true freshmen who is looking to make an immediate impact right out of high school. And our incoming true freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins has to be hands-down our greatest athlete and a lock to be an impact receiving tight end in the pros just as soon as he’s eligible to declare for the Draft. You couldn’t ask for a better group of targets for a new quarterback! They’re bound to take every bit of pressure off of Keith Price this season.
On the other side of the ball, you’d have to say that linebacker is the next-biggest question mark going into this season. Honestly, I’d be a lot more concerned if we didn’t have returning senior Cort Dennison to anchor this group. But, even if we didn’t, you have to look at our D-Line – anchored by probably the best tackle in the conference, Alameda Ta’amu – and what they also did down the stretch in last year’s run to a Holiday Bowl victory and feel confident that THAT experience will propel this defense to greater things. Certainly, greater than we’ve seen since the glory days of Rick Neuheisel’s since-tarnished run back when I was still in school. And, to cap things off, we’ve got Quinton Richardson and Desmond Trufant with another year of experience to bring to our secondary.
This defense may not be perfect, but it’s unlikely to be something I’ll be overly concerned about.
What IS a concern – and probably worth more trepidation than I’m even giving it credit for now – is our schedule. Which pretty much is my way of saying that we have to go into Nebraska, and we’re still in a conference with powerhouse schools like USC, Oregon, and Stanford (my pick to win it all and contend for a national championship).
Here’s the thing though, I can look at this schedule and start counting the defeats as if they’re automatic coming into the season, but I can’t help but feel confident. Maybe it’s the rose-colored glasses I’m still wearing coming off of that 4-0 run to close last season, maybe it’s my rampant homerism taking over control of my brain, maybe it’s my steadfast belief in all of those hundreds of words I just wrote preceeding these last two paragraphs. Whatever the reason, I can’t help but believe that we will be competative in every single one of these games this season.
Eastern Washington may have won the FCS national championship last year, but let’s face it, they should be pushovers (I’m going to regret writing that sentence next week if they happen to shock the world). And I don’t know much about Hawaii’s program other than the fact that they seem to carry a lot of talent on offense every year, but if we’re not 2-0 going into that showdown at Memorial Stadium, it’ll be a huge upset.
That game at Nebraska has taken on an entirely different meaning with our stomping of them in the Holiday Bowl. If we were going into that game 0-2 against them in the last year, I’d be singing a much different tune. But, we’ve shown what it takes to beat this team on a national stage, and I don’t see why we can’t use that same rush-heavy blueprint to do the same thing on their home turf. Now, if I was a betting man, I’d stay away from this game completely, because as a rational human being, I don’t think there’s any way the Huskies go in there and come out alive. But, as a fan of the Purple & Gold, I have to admit that I honestly didn’t think there was any way we could’ve beaten them in the Holiday Bowl either. And I don’t buy this argument that they weren’t “up” for the Dawgs last December. If you’re a big time college football program and you can’t get “up” for a bowl game, then there’s something more than a little wrong with you than being disappointed about your opponent. No one in their right mind in that program would use excitement level as an excuse for the butt-whipping they endured. They had the same amount of practice time as we did; they just got beat. And it’s not impossible to say they won’t suffer a similar fate this year.
After the first three, we get Cal at home (a definite advantage for the good guys), a road game in Utah (who might be the biggest wild card in all of the Pac-12 outside of Montlake), and a home game against Colorado (who I just have to hope we don’t look past on our way to the bigtime matchups coming up).
Because once we get through our sixth game of the season, shit starts getting REAL. @ Stanford, vs. Arizona, vs. Oregon, @ USC, and @ Oregon State. That Stanford game is hands down the game I’m least confident in. So, of course that’s the road game I decided to attend this year. Aside from what I’m hoping is me being a good-luck charm, the only other thing we have going for us is the fact that Stanford’s home crowd isn’t anything to write home about. Let’s just say their home experience isn’t the most terrifying in all of sports.
Arizona always seems to have a monster offense, and they always seem to have our number (except for that 2009 game – which I attended – where we miraculously came back with two late TDs, including Mason Foster’s mind-blowing pick-six to seal the deal).
Oregon is Oregon, but they’re coming to Husky stadium and we would give just about anything to break the stranglehold they have on us. USC is also USC, but we’ve found a way to have their number in the last two seasons and there’s no reason to think we couldn’t make it three in a row. Oregon State, by all accounts, looks to be down compared to last year, but it’s still in their home stadium and they’re always tough at home.
We close the season with the Apple Cup (as it should be) at CenturyLink where we may or may yes be pushing for a bowl berth. I think the Cougs will be much better than they were last season, by which I mean the Cougs will win more than AH conference game. But, I don’t think among those conference wins will be one in the Apple Cup.
If I had to predict a record, I’d say 7-5 is a safe bet. Still, best case scenario is 9-3, and my thoughts on the matter are waffling constantly. I’ll probably have an updated prediciton when I’m actually able to see this team play. But, whatever happens, I’m still excited for a memorable 2011.
At the very least, I still have the Husky tailgates. If the team falls apart and I’m made to look like a huge idiot, at least I’ll figure out a way to have fun (read: by being super drunk every Saturday).