UW football midseason report: More nuggets than nits so far

christian.caple@thenewstribune.comOctober 17, 2013 

SEATTLE — With a 4-2 record and No. 20 national ranking, the Washington Huskies football team begins the second half of its season with the potential to post the school’s highest win total since 2001.

That quest begins Saturday at Arizona State. First, here’s a look back at some of the highlights from the season’s first half, as well as a few concerns:

OFFENSIVE MVP

Easy call here. Bishop Sankey leads the nation in yards rushing with 899, and in yards per game with 149.8, and if he maintains this pace — or even something resembling this pace — he could break Corey Dillon’s UW single-season rushing record of 1,695 yards.

Everyone expected Sankey to be one of the Pac-12 Conference’s top backs after he rushed for 1,439 yards last season, coming on particularly strong down the stretch and finishing with a dominant

performance against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. But few likely expected Sankey to be the nation’s top rusher through six games. His durability — he’s already accumulated 159 carries, an average of 26.5 per game — might be what makes him most valuable.

Honorable mention: Keith Price (69.3 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions in six games).

DEFENSIVE MVP

This designation isn’t as clear-cut, because the Huskies have received positive contributions from a number of guys. Senior safety Sean Parker has been consistent on the back end, making 34 tackles and intercepting three passes. Linebacker John Timu missed a game with a shoulder injury, but is still tied for second on the team with 41 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker Shaq Thompson (41 tackles), nose tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Princeton Fuimaono (team-high 44 tackles) deserve recognition too. But the nod goes by a thin margin to Timu.

Honorable mention: Fuimaono has bounced back from a frustrating junior year and is putting together a pretty solid season as a senior. Thompson continues to show why he’s UW’s best athlete.

MOST IMPROVED

A quarterback’s performance is obviously greatly impacted by the quality of his offensive line and receivers.

The Huskies lacked depth in those areas last year, and Price’s statistics suffered. For that reason, he was the target of a great deal of criticism, most of it undeserved.

However, with a healthy and more experienced offensive line — along with a deeper, more experienced group of receivers — Price is playing much better this season compared to last, when he was often running for his life and admittedly tried to make too much happen on his own.

This year, Price’s numbers are back up, his turnovers are down, and it’s hard to argue that the evolution of UW’s fifth-year quarterback isn’t one of the Huskies’ most pleasant first-half developments.

Honorable mention: Sophomore receiver Jaydon Mickens, who leads the team with 34 catches for 323 yards. Also, receiver Kevin Smith, who leads the team in receiving yards with 389 after catching just six passes last season. And defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha has come off two knee injuries to lead the team with 3.5 sacks.

BEST PLAY

It will be forgotten in the context of what wound up a heartbreaking loss, but cornerback Marcus Peters at least gave the Huskies a chance by tracking down Stanford QB Kevin Hogan on a third-and-1 rush and tackling him short of the first-down marker. A first down likely would have sealed the game, but Peters’ effort gave UW a chance to win.

Honorable mention: Facing a fourth-and-1 and trailing 21-7 against Oregon early in the third quarter, Sankey took a handoff 60 yards up the left sideline for a touchdown.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Mickens and Smith each qualify here. Smith appeared in 12 games last season after returning from a knee injury, but caught just six passes for 68 yards and wasn’t all that involved in the offense. As a senior, he’s leading the team in receiving yards, and is one of Price’s primary targets. Mickens has benefited greatly from quick swing passes and bubble screens, and the sophomore uses his speed to turn those short catches into helpful gains.

Honorable mention: Here’s a surprise, and not necessarily a pleasant one: through five games — he was suspended for the season opener — tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins has caught just 16 passes. He caught 69 last season, the most by a UW tight end. Both Seferian-Jenkins and junior receiver Kasen Williams (24 catches, 374 yards) have been the subject of conversation from fans wondering why the two don’t receive more targets.

BIGGEST CONCERN

The lack of production from Williams and Seferian-Jenkins will continue to be a talking point, but coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t wrong when he insists UW’s offense is about balance, and as long as the Huskies are moving the ball with consistency — which, for the most part, they have — it doesn’t matter who’s catching or running it.

Of bigger concern is special-teams play. Much was made of the two big kickoff returns allowed against Stanford — one 99 yards for a touchdown to open the game, the other for 68 yards that set up a touchdown — and Oregon used a kickoff return to put itself in strong field position last week. Those kinds of mistakes must be fixed.

If we’re picking nits, the Huskies did manage only three sacks combined against Stanford and Oregon, and their pass-rush — despite averaging a healthy 2.67 sacks per game — has been spotty at times.

And if the Ducks can gain 631 yards against the Huskies, other talented, up-tempo offenses may be able to put up big numbers, too.

christian.caple@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @ChristianCaple

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