Scouting the Huskies with Bob Condotta

COUGARS

FROM PULLMAN — To preview Friday's Apple Cup game, Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times was kind enough to answer five questions for us. You can find Bob's blog here (as if there's anyone reading this who wouldn't already know), and follow him on Twitter: @bcondotta. Read on.


1. Bishop Sankey has kind of surprised a lot of people with his production this season, and a pretty big chunk of that has come in UW's last three games. Has there just been a concerted effort to get him the ball more, or has it been an opponent-specific kind of thing?

"Probably some of both —- how's that for clarity! Sankey's surge really began after UW threw 52 passes in a loss at Arizona, the most the Huskies had thrown since 2002, and which Husky coach Steve Sarkisian later admitted was too many. It made a little bit of sense, though, going against an Arizona defense that is terrible against the pass (Marqise Lee had his record-setting day against the Wildcats the very next week). UW came home the following week to play Oregon State, which has one of the better secondaries around, so I think  the gameplan would  have been different, anyway. But the Disaster in the Desert I think also convinced Sarkisian to re-tool  the gameplan around a running attack and being a little more conserevative, which also plays to the team's defensive strengths. Sankey had a solid day against OSU and the Huskies beat the Beavers and the template for the rest of the season was set. He's had 86 carries for 486 yards the last three games, which I determined this week to be the most carries over a three-game span for a Husky player since Corey Dillon in 1996. No question that no one knew for sure if Sankey could handle that sort of workloard when the season began. But he's a hard worker who keeps himself in great shape, and he's proven up to the task in every way."

2. Keith Price was pretty hobbled all of last year. How is he moving this season? Is his scrambling ability any better, and is that more a part of his game now?
 
"Price has insisted all year he is fine. And unlike last season when he took a number of shots in which it was obvious he'd suffered some sort of injury, he has rarely come off the field this year really seeming to be favoring something. He has at times seemed to be less 100 percent than others. But of late he has looked fine. I'm not sure at this point he will ever do a lot of designed running —- Sarkisian just values his health too much to really want to put him at risk more than he has to. Price did have some games where he was more aggressive about scrambling —- and in some of those also had some issues with fumbling. The scrambling they mostly want Price to do is evading the rush and getting out of trouble —- he may lead the nation  in passes thrown intentionally out of bounds once he's outside the pocket (which in some ways makes his 62 percent on completions look that much better). He also becomes more aggressive running when in the red zone."

3. Do you get the sense that UW has things figured out now that it's won four straight, or is that more a product of playing the conference's have-nots?
 
"Again, I'll give you the black-or-white answer —- some of both. It's obviously hard to completely separate the performance from opponent. Last year, UW started 6-2 then faded at the finish when  it had to play Oregon, Stanford, USC. This year, UW started 3-4 when it had to play the ranked teams on its schedule, then has feasted when the schedule has turned (though obviously worth noting that what is making the difference in this season and has the potential to make this the best year for UW since 2001 is its upset wins of Stanford and OSU, each in the top 10 at the time). That the opponents have been lesser have definitely allowed UW to survive some early sloppiness during this winning streak —- they wouldn't have beaten Oregon State or Stanford with the game they played against Cal, for instance, or maybe even Colorado. But as discussed above, the Huskies have also set a template of late for how this team can be successful —- establishing the run with Sankey, timely passes to Kasen Williams and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and getting some of the other receivers a bit more involved, and playing solid defense."
 
4. UW's defensive turnaround has been pretty well-documented this year, but is there anything specifically that's really keyed its improvement on that side of the ball?

"You have to begin with Justin Wilcox and all the new coaches on that side of the ball —- Tosh Lupoi on the line, Peter Sirmon at linebackers and Keith Heyward in the secondary. They fired Nick Holt and hired all those guys (at pretty big salaries) for a reason, and so far those guys are proving to be the best signings by a Seattle-area team in decades (no Chone Figgins in that group). Wilcox has been a master at putting guys in the right spots, and doing so each week —- linemen play primarily tackle one" week, end the next, for instance. And he moved Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson from safety to linebacker and those two have completely transformed a linebacking unit that figured to be the weakness of the team. UW also is a lot more experienced overall on defense this year than it was last season. Almost all of the linemen saw significant time last year; MLB John Timu has improved greatly in his second year; and three of the four starters in the secondary are juniors or seniors who have significant starting experienced, led by senior Desmond Trufant. I think just based on experience alone that the defense would have been better this year no matter who was in charge. But Wilcox has been the catalyst. He seems to have a knack for putting together gameplans that make opponents do what they are not good at  — somehow, UW coerced Stanford into making Josh Nunes throw it 37 times while running it just 28 times in a game in which Stanford had the lead for all but the final few minutes."

5. I've seen people throw out the "trap game" term a few times this week. Does it feel that way to you? Can the Apple Cup ever really be a trap game?

"I'm not sure it can be anymore. And you are right that maybe it never really has been all that much. I think there's always been a notion  in the public that the game means more to WSU than it does UW. But I've never really felt that from the UW players or coaches in the years I've covered the team. There were a few instances through nthe years of WSU pulling big upsets that seemed to create that perception, such as 1982, when  a 2-7-1 WSU team beat a 9-1 UW team that needed the win to go to the Rose Bowl. But I think if you really break the games down objectiely, that may be the only time UW has ever appeared to really look past WSU. Certainly, Rick Neuheisel made it a huge priority to beat WSU. And Steve Sarkisian has, as well. So I don't expect that to be an issue for the Huskies."

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