No. 15 Washington will be the heavy favorite to win at 2-3 Stanford on Saturday.
But, given that the Huskies have not won inside Stanford Stadium since 2007, legitimate questions remain.
Let’s answer a few of them in this week’s UW Huskies mailbag.
Can I answer yes to both parts of your question?
To begin with, one of Washington’s greatest offensive strengths is its running back stable, and Chris Petersen understands that. The Huskies’ sixth-year head coach has said forcefully, and repeatedly, that a team can’t succeed in a 12- or 13- or 14- or (in a perfect world) 15-game season with one contributing running back. The game is too physical, the defenses are too tough, the head-on collisions are too frequent. Even if your primary ball-carrier is healthy enough to receive 30 carries in 15 consecutive games, it’s highly unlikely he’d be the same player, with the same burst, in early January.
Besides, look who Washington boasts in the backfield. Redshirt freshman running back Richard Newton is a legitimate force and red zone weapon. He’s a 210-pound forearm to the temple, and he’s scored seven touchdowns in his first five games. And junior Sean McGrew is more than a serviceable body. The 5-7, 186-pounder is deceptively physical for his frame. He has fleet enough feet to bounce around tacklers, and he’s fearless enough to barrel through bigger bodies.
But with all that said, Salvon Ahmed is UW’s starting running back.
That was made all the more clear last weekend, when the 196-pound junior returned to action and registered an 89-yard third-quarter touchdown run. Keep a keen eye on how the Husky coaches used him in the win over USC. A week after missing the BYU game with a leg injury, Petersen and Co. trusted Ahmed with 17 carries. And a week after he filled in with 110 rushing yards against BYU, McGrew received a grand total of two carries. Two.
Now, that doesn’t mean McGrew won’t have his moments this season. Same goes for Newton.
But the numbers don’t lie. And, when healthy, Ahmed is the guy.
This is correct. Four UW true freshmen — safety Cameron Williams, corner Trent McDuffie, wide receiver Puka Nacua and kicker Tim Horn — have played in all five games this season and thus are ineligible to redshirt. Of those four, Williams, McDuffie and Horn (as a kickoff specialist) have all established themselves as starters.
As for the team’s remaining true freshmen, nickelback Asa Turner and outside linebacker Laiatu Latu are the realistic candidates to burn their redshirts. The 6-3, 187-pound Turner has made three tackles with a tackle for loss and an interception in four games, and Petersen complimented his play with added reps in last week’s win over USC. There’s also a thought that Turner’s length could come in handy against Stanford’s more physical receivers and tight ends on Saturday night.
If healthy, Laiatu seems too intriguing too ignore. The 6-4, 275-pound pass-rusher and former rugby standout has contributed eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks, while forcing a safety, in four games this season. Beyond starters Ryan Bowman and Joe Tryon, UW outside linebackers Ariel Ngata, Myles Rice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui have yet to secure a sack through five games.
The Huskies — whose 2.2 sacks per game this season ranks seventh in the Pac-12 — are always aiming to create pressure. If Laiatu can provide it, he’ll play. I expect him to play more and more as the season progresses.
Let’s start with an acknowledgment: Benning Potoa’e needs help.
The 6-3, 290-pound senior has been something of a revelation in his move from outside linebacker to the defensive line, leading the Huskies with five tackles for loss and three sacks in five games. For comparison’s sake, the former four-star prospect managed a total of four sacks in his first three seasons. But on the inside, Potoa’e has been physical enough to avoid being bullied, and his quickness and explosiveness has allowed him to knife through blocks and into the backfield.
Elsewhere on the defensive line, it hasn’t been quite so impressive. Besides Potoa’e, UW’s other linemen have combined for 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. The Huskies certainly expected more from 6-3, 293-pound junior Levi Onwuzurike — who piled up 34 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in a limited role last season but has added just 14 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss as a full-time starter in 2019. Onwuzurike has shown he’s a capable contributor, so it’s reasonable to expect a second-half surge.
Redshirt freshmen Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam “Taki” Taimani should also continue to progress in their first collegiate seasons. The 6-2, 318-pound Letuligasenoa has showcased the strength to cave in opposing offensive lines, and he picked up his first career sack in the 20-19 loss to Cal. The consistency has to come next. It’s the same story for Taimani, who most notably flashed in his home state during the win over BYU.
This is not just a question of weight, or muscle.
If it were, you could scan UW’s roster and immediately settle on the heftiest Husky — 6-6, 352-pound redshirt freshman offensive lineman and resident immovable object M.J. Ale — as your winner.
That’s not to say those things aren’t important. An arm wrestling contest is, at its most elemental, a measure of strength. And for that reason, I’m instantly eliminating all non-linemen. Sorry, Myles Bryant. Sorry, M.J. Tafisi. Sorry, Hunter Bryant. Sorry, Joe Tryon. Sorry, Laiatu Latu. Sorry, Jacob Eason (whose right arm is, indeed, very strong). Thanks for playing, one and all.
Strength is important, but so is leverage. A strong arm is great; a long arm is even better. The longer your arm, the more torque you can force upon surprisingly overmatched opponents.
That’s why I’m siding with 6-8, 314-pound fifth-year senior Trey Adams.
Let’s assume, without having access to the official measurements, that Adams’ right arm is longer than those attached to the bruising bodies of 6-2 or 6-3 defensive linemen Tuli Letuligasenoa, Sam “Taki” Taimani or Levi Onwuzurike. Adams would wield a superior weapon, and he’d use it to convincingly and mercilessly incinerate all supposed contenders.
But that’s not the only factor at play. Let’s not forget that Adams has also been through stuff. He missed 16 consecutive games during the last two seasons with a torn ACL and a bulging disk in his back. On Sunday, after being flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in last week’s win over USC, he completed 500 pushups as punishment.
Adams knows pain. He has conquered every available opposition. With brown hair dangling across his shoulders and contentment in his heart, he has stared adversity square in the eyes and proceeded to pile-drive it through a table.
So, yes, there are more physically imposing options. It’s easy to fall in love with the mouthwatering measurables of freshmen offensive linemen Julius Buelow (6-8, 342) and Nate Kalepo (6-6, 346).
But who really wants it more? Who’s willing to ride their right bicep to the absolute excruciating edge of human agony? When these freshmen are sitting across from a great white shark, will they hunker down, or swim to safety?
In this exercise, Trey Adams is unstoppable. Like Michael Myers, he can’t be killed. The fifth-year senior from Wenatchee is the only answer. His back is healed, his heart is willing and his psyche is unassailable.