Can Washington still contend for a Pac-12 title?
The answer will come at approximately 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
But before No. 25 UW hosts No. 12 Oregon inside Husky Stadium, let’s open our Washington football mailbag once again.
After maintaining the starting safety tandem of Myles Bryant and Cameron Williams for the first six games, Jimmy Lake shook things up last weekend. UW’s second-year defensive coordinator replaced Williams with fellow freshman Asa Turner, who was operating as a backup nickelback.
The 6-foot-3, 187-pound Turner took advantage of that opportunity, turning in four tackles with a tackle for loss in the win.
“I thought Asa played really well,” UW coach Chris Petersen said Monday. “Starting with the BYU game, even though it was kind of the end of the game, not a super pressurized situation, but he goes out and picks the ball off. And the next game he gets in for a handful of reps in more meaningful time and did a nice job. So he is slowly just like, one of those guys it’s so awesome to see.
“You see him practice well and you put him in the game and it translates. It doesn’t always translate, but it really has been for him. So I think it was awesome to get him in there a bunch, and I think the confidence will keep building.”
The confidence will keep building, but will Turner keep starting? In UW’s Oregon Week depth chart, the starting safety in question was listed as Turner OR Williams, with the ever-reliable Bryant on the other side. Junior Brandon McKinney slid into Turner’s former spot as the backup nickel after previously being considered a backup safety.
Let’s not forget that, though Williams surrendered long touchdowns in back-to-back games prior to his benching, the former quarterback from Bakersfield, Calif., still leads UW with three interceptions. The 6-0, 191-pound Williams was one of the emerging stories of the offseason, an early enrollee who stepped in and almost immediately secured a starting spot.
Lake is not going to give up on him — nor should he. But which player gives UW the best chance to win against Oregon and quarterback Justin Herbert, who has thrown 17 touchdowns with just one interception?
“We’ll see,” Lake said this week. “I tell the DBs all the time, ‘I’m an equal opportunity employer.’ Everybody has an equal opportunity to play. You go do it in practice and perform in games, and you’re going to get more reps. It also starts with our guys sacrificing themselves on special teams as well. Alex Cook has done a good job on special teams. Brandon McKinney has.
“So we’ve got a lot of guys that are going to get an opportunity to go out there and play. So we’ll just see how the season progresses.”
As much as we like to talk and write and read about UW quarterback Jacob Eason (and we will below), the Huskies’ success Saturday will be predicated on their ability to run the football. Through six games this season, the Duck defense ranks second nationally in opponent pass efficiency rating (85.39), second in interceptions (12), second in opponent yards per attempt (4.8), eighth in passing defense (160.2 yards per game), 12th in opponent completion percentage (52.2) and 12th in sacks per game (3.5).
Translation: It’s extremely difficult to pass on Oregon.
UW, meanwhile, has averaged at least four yards per carry in all seven games this season. The Huskies piled up 207 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry and three touchdowns, with Sean McGrew and Salvon Ahmed each topping 95 yards, in last weekend’s 51-27 win over Arizona. And to your point, they ripped off 194 rushing yards and 4.3 yards per carry against Oregon in 2018.
In the last two weeks, UW’s offensive coaches have stressed the need to “play to their strengths” — which they believe to be running the football effectively, involving tight ends Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton and taking an occasional shot on the outside. The first part of that equation could be especially important Saturday, considering the forecast.
“Not so much,” said UW offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan, when asked if a rainy track might affect his play-calling or game plan. “I think it plays to our strength and the identity that we want to be. We love it. We call that dawg weather, and our guys will be ready to go.”
Short answer: no.
Longer answer: Eason has been working to improve his vocal leadership for years, dating to his prolific high-school career at Lake Stevens High School.
Need proof? Here’s proof.
“That’s what worries me about UW,” Tom Tri, Lake Stevens’ football coach, told The Times in August. “Because he’s so even keeled and nonchalant, I’m worried people are going to think, ‘Oh, he doesn’t care about the program. He doesn’t work hard enough. He’s not leading enough. He’s not vocal enough.’
“He needs to get better at those things. That’s a weakness — his ability to communicate to everybody and realize, ‘Dude, whether you want to be the guy or not, you’re the guy. You’re playing quarterback at the University of Washington. The spotlight’s on you, dude. You’re the leader of that team, whether you want to be or not.’ He’s gotten better at that — a lot better at that.”
Still, vocal leadership does not come naturally to Eason, a fact that he readily admits. Whether he was named UW’s starting quarterback last spring or this fall, that still would have been an issue. It’s an issue that precedes his transfer to Washington and will likely spur questions during the NFL Draft process as well. It’s not an unfortunate side effect of a prolonged quarterback competition.
Ultimately, Eason’s production is what matters most. Through seven games, the 6-6, 227-pound junior is completing 66 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,692 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has an opportunity on Saturday to lead an upset of the Huskies’ primary rival.
If he can do that, his actions will certainly speak a whole lot louder than words.
(I don’t know.)
When it comes to four-star freshman wide receiver Puka Nacua, Washington football fans would certainly like to believe that the floodgates have opened. The 6-1, 204-pounder caught three passes for 97 yards in the win over Arizona, including a 49-yarder on a go-route in which he ripped the ball away from a defensive back and carried that same Wildcat for at least five more yards. His physical gifts are undeniable — and they’re also unique on a roster primarily featuring smaller, shiftier senior wide receivers. Nacua would seem to be an attractive target against an Oregon defense that typically challenges opposing receivers with tight man-to-man coverage.
But this is far from a slam dunk (which, by the way, Nacua is also good at). Puka’s first career target turned into a 28-yard touchdown in the home win over Hawaii on Sept. 14.
He failed to receive a target in the next three games.
So, yes, he seems to have earned more opportunities on Saturday. But seeing is believing.