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UW preview: Huskies hoping Arkansas State’s aerial assault (finally) yields sacks and interceptions

Michigan running back Blake Corum avoids a tackle from Washington defensive back Alex Cook in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 11, 2021. Michigan won 31-10.  (Associated Press)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Through two games, Washington ranks first in the country in passing defense (74.5 yards per game), third in opponent yards per pass attempt (3.9), sixth in opponent pass efficiency rating (82.94), seventh in opponent completion percentage (50%) and seventh in opponent pass attempts per game (19).

Arkansas State, meanwhile, ranks first in the country in pass attempts per game (52), second in passing offense (450.5 yards per game) and fourth in passing touchdowns (nine).

Inside Husky Stadium on Saturday, something has to give.

“They like to throw the ball,” UW cornerback Kyler Gordon said on Wednesday . “We’re ready for that. We’ve been waiting for that. It’s going to be a fun game.”

For Washington, the wait has not been nearly as fun. In its first two games – both losses – the Husky front seven has been severely exposed, surrendering 235 rushing yards per game and 5.22 yards per carry. In a 31-10 loss at Michigan last weekend, the Wolverines ran at will – producing 56 attempts for 343 yards and four rushing touchdowns, while bothering to pass only 15 times.

If opponents don’t pass, the pass rush can’t produce – and the Huskies have managed just one sack in their first two games.

If opponents don’t pass, they can’t be intercepted – and the UW defense has yet to force a turnover, ranking 124th nationally in turnover differential (minus-2).

If opponents don’t pass, Jimmy Lake’s parade of defensive backs can’t play to their potential.

“When you allow an offense to sustain the run game, it’s hard to get turnovers,” Lake said. “And that’s what we’ve done the last two weeks, is we haven’t put them in a disadvantage.

“Now, I will say this: Turnovers usually come in bunches. You guys have heard that, and they do. As soon as they start coming, you can get three, four, five at a time. That’s what our defensive job is to do, is to score or get the ball back. These two weeks we definitely have not done that, and that needs to show up with some results here hopefully starting on Saturday.”

Kyler Gordon and Trent McDuffie are literally betting on it.

Against a pass-happy opponent in Arkansas State, UW’s starting cornerback tandem has an ongoing wager to see who can snag the first interception of the season – with the video game of their choosing going to the winner. If Gordon wins, he wants “Call of Duty: Vanguard.” If McDuffie wins, he wants one of Gordon’s existing games … solely to rub celebratory salt in his cornerback counterpart’s wound.

From a UW perspective: If either wins, everyone wins.

“I’m thinking, if the ball’s in the air, one of the DBs has to get it,” Gordon said. “If it’s not me, it’s going to be Trent, Bookie (nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles), AC (safety Alex Cook), someone. Everyone’s just really excited to see the ball in the air. It’s definitely motivating. We’ve got to really do this.”

And they have to do it regardless of whom the Red Wolves start under center.

In its season-opening win over Central Arkansas, James Blackman started at quarterback for Arkansas State … before being replaced by Layne Hatcher, who promptly completed all 12 passes for 150 yards and four touchdowns. A week later, Hatcher earned the start in a 55-50 loss to Memphis … only to be succeeded by Blackman, who threw for 306 yards and four scores of his own.

Through two games, Blackman – a Florida State transfer – has completed 64.8% of his passes, throwing for 475 yards and four touchdowns. Hatcher, meanwhile, has notched a 70% completion percentage with 426 yards and five scores. Neither has thrown an interception.

They say if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.

But the Red Wolves appear to present an intriguing exception.

“It’s interesting the way they’re playing their quarterbacks right now,” Lake said. “There’s really no drop-off. (Blackman’s) in there and he’s playing really, really well. I think in the first game (Blackman’s) helmet popped off so then the backup came in, he got really hot and then he stayed in and threw four touchdown passes. And then this last game they start off with (Hatcher) as the starter, they’re struggling a little bit, they’re down, and then they bring back in (Blackman) and he throws four touchdown passes in four drives. And so they are extremely, extremely explosive on that side of the ball.”

Arkansas State is explosive, and Washington is excited.

The Huskies are hoping for sacks and interceptions (and video games) on Saturday.

“These guys are more resilient than you think,” Lake said this week, when asked if he worries he’ll lose the locker room. “Football teaches you a lot. These guys have been playing football for a long time. Football teaches you how to be responsible, accountable, (have) a strong work ethic. And the other thing it teaches you, it teaches you to be tough, to be resilient, to persevere when no one else believes in you.

“That’s what this sport does. We have a bunch of tough football players on our team, and their confidence level is high because they know they haven’t played their best football yet.

“They’ve watched the film. Our best football is still yet to come. I know they’re excited to go out there and show what they’ve got.”