Saturday afternoon, the Alabama Crimson Tide will return to some very familiar territory. Over the last several years, the Georgia Dome has been extremely good to Alabama and Nick Saban. In fact, since 2008, the Tide is 9-1 in their Dome away from home with their only loss coming in 2008 against Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators.
But Saturday Alabama also makes a familiar return to the college football playoffs. Alabama is the only team to make the playoffs in all three years of its existence so the travel, the routines, the practices, the events and the pressures of the game are almost as familiar as the Georgia Dome is for the Tide.
And then there’s Washington.
Washington hasn’t been relevant in the landscape of college football since Nick Saban’s mentor, Don James, was roaming the Husky sidelines from 1975 to 1992. Now, suddenly in Chris Peterson’s third season in Seattle, the Huskies have mushed their way into the spotlight of college football’s biggest stage.
Is Washington ready?
Well, our crack staff was able to put down their new toys from Santa long enough to watch the Washington Huskies take on Utah, Colorado and USC and we came to a very startling conclusion. This is one damn good football team. The Huskies are very balanced on offense, exhibiting a penchant for power running and a perfectly timed passing game with a big play receiver. On defense, they are superb.
In our opinion, Washington is the most complete team that Alabama will face in the college football playoffs. Yep, we said it. Here’s what to watch for on Saturday…
Alabama on Offense
When we turned on the tape of Washington’s defense, the first thing that jumped out was their outstanding secondary. Earlier this week, Coach Saban compared them to the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary and while we aren’t quite ready to go that far, we can definitely say they are outstanding. Their corners hold up very well in man to man coverage and their safeties are the ballhawking, hard hitting safeties that you are accustomed to seeing in crimson jerseys.
If there is a weak spot on Washington’s defense, it’s in their front seven. We never saw them generate much of a pass rush in any of the games we watched. Additionally, Utah ran for 213 yards – most of which was between the tackles. Further research revealed that the lowly Arizona Wildcats thundered for 308 rushing yards in a 35-28 overtime thriller earlier in the year. Yes, that’s the same Arizona team that went 3-9 this season.
Still, Washington’s defense comes into the game ranked 11th in the country in total defense (316.2 yards per game) and they lead the country in forcing turnovers. Even after giving up over 200 yards to Utah and Arizona on the ground, the Huskies’ rushing defense still ranks 20th in the country, giving up 123.5 yards per game on the ground. The Huskies are also ranked 20th in the country against the pass, giving up 192.6 yards per game. Basically, they are really good at playing defense.
Here’s what to watch for when Bama has the ball…
Run the Damn Ball, Lane: You will very likely be screaming “RUN THE DAMN BALL” at the TV Saturday afternoon, just as you have done all season. Washington’s defense is predicated on speed, speed and more speed. Defensive end Connor O’Brien is just 232 pounds. Their middle linebacker DJ Beavers is 216 lbs. Playmaking linebacker Keishawn Bierra (#7 – he’s outstanding) is only 221 lbs. If Alabama can root out Washington’s two husky defensive tackles (both weighing over 318 lbs), then they can have their way with the ends and the second level. Utah slammed the ball down Washington’s throats between the tackles and that’s where Alabama’s bread should be buttered Saturday.
Beware of the Passing Game: Washington’s pass defense is outstanding. They have playmakers all across the back end of their defense and they love to play coverage. So, look for Washington to employ a three man rush and a spy against Hurts much of the day in an effort to force Hurts to throw into tiny windows. Washington is 6th in the country in forcing interceptions (19 picks) because they play solid coverage and they have playmakers who can catch the rock. If Kiffin gets pass happy Saturday, things will not go well.
Beware the Tell Tale Blitz: I’m convinced Washington actually wants the QB to read the blitz early before the snap so that they can bait the QB into throwing where they want him to throw. I saw Husky defensive backs jump routes in all three games – when I tell you these DBs can play, please hear me. Their DBs can play. Kevin King (6’3), Sidney Jones (6’0), Taylor Rapp (6’0) and Budda Baker (5’10) are all big and physical and can all play the football in the air. In particular, look out for Baker (#32). He reminds us of the Honey Badger.
Remember Thy OJ Howard: Utah and USC both confused the Husky coverages by slipping their tight ends out into the deep flats (think corner routes). Washington plays a ton of zone coverage and both Utah and USC used their wide outs to clear an area for their tight ends to freely roam. While Ridley and Stewart will likely have difficulty getting the ball, OJ should be a big factor.
North/South, not East/West: Washington’s defense will surprise you with their team speed. The Huskies fly to the football and come up with a mean spirited nature about them. This season, Alabama has had a tremendous amount of success with the fly sweeps, bubble screens and other East/West plays designed to stretch a defense. From what we saw on tape, these Huskies will devour perimeter plays like a doggie biscuit. Between the tackles is the way to go.
Passing Lanes: USC beat Washington because they limited the Huskies to just 17 yards rushing and because Sam Darnold played out of his mind. For those of you chalking up the USC victory as a sign that Alabama will easily have their way with Washington, you should go to You Tube and check out the USC game – it was a tight one. Darnold was able to complete numerous passes in tee-tiny little windows as Washington challenged nearly every throw. There were a couple of times where their zone coverages were confused but, by and large, Darnold had to be pin point accurate. Can Jalen throw the ball as well as Darnold? No, he cannot. Hurts cannot, at this stage of his development, make the same throws Darnold did against the Huskies. Consider it a win for Hurts if the pass goes incomplete.
Blitzen: Against USC, Washington repeatedly brought slot corners and linebackers effectively on the blitz. In particular, look for #7 (Bierria) to hit the A/B gaps hard. They do tip their blitzes so Alabama should have some checks to counter the blitzes for some big gainers.
- Colorado, Utah and USC used slants effectively. Washington did jump a couple of them for interceptions, however.
- Against Utah, the Huskies played with two down linemen and two stand up defensive ends. The Utes stayed in a spread formation and attacked the smaller linebackers and ends by slamming the ball between the tackles.
- Look for Washington to rush two or three and use at least one spy on Hurts. They want to force Hurts to throw the football just as LSU did.
- USC used a TON of crossing patterns in the middle of the field causing confusion in the zone coverages for the linebackers. This is not Hurts’ favorite throw to make but there should be open receivers between the hashes around 10 yards down the field.
- Utah’s big back Joe Williams (5’11, 210) carried UW defenders down the field like little piggy backs so look for Bo Scarborough to push his way for chunks of yardage.
- Utah ran a beautiful passing play inside the five yard line for a TD. Their TE flared out at the goal line, forcing the flat corner to vacate his zone and come up to play the TE. Meanwhile, the wide receiver on that side simply ran to the back corner of the end zone and was wide open for the touchdown. Kiffin will flood zones and create conflicts for UW in coverage.
- Look for Hurts to effectively use play action and then roll right to find open receivers. USC ran this play three or four times with big success.
- Washington effectively defended every screen pass we saw.
- We think the QB draw could be huge against a blitz.
Final Thoughts on Offense
This game will test Kiffin’s patience like no other and we think Washington’s defense will be more challenging for him than Kiffin getting on the team bus. Will Kiffin get cute and attempt to show the country how awesome his FAU offenses will be? Or will he stick to his knitting and hit the small UW defenders with heavy doses of Hurts, Scarborough, Harris and Jacobs on the ground? Washington knows that if Hurts’ first couple of options are not there, he’s going to tuck and run and they will defend Hurts’ running game at all costs. When Hurts drops back, he’ll have tons of time so the question becomes whether or not he can throw an accurate ball into tight coverage.
Alabama on Defense
After watching Utah, Colorado and USC cause serious problems for Jake Browning in the passing game, we came away with the conclusion that the Washington offense really isn’t about Browning at all. Yes, he has some outstanding numbers this season. However, UW’s offensive success is entirely dependent upon running the football. USC controlled the line of scrimmage and limited the Huskies to just 17 yards rushing. As a result, Browning was asked to put the game on his shoulders and, aside from one bomb to the outstanding John Ross, Browning failed to deliver (17 of 37 for 259 yards, 70 of which came on the aforementioned bomb to Ross).
In a tight game against Utah, it was the running game of Miles Gaskin that came to the rescue in their seven point win on the road. UW rushed for 199 yards in the game and Gaskin accounted for 151. Against the Colorado Buffaloes, Browning was just 9 of 24 for 118 yards so, once again, Gaskin and the Husky running game had to come to the rescue. Gaskin rushed for 159 yards while Lavon Coleman rushed for 101 yards and the Huskies rolled to 265 yards on the ground in the Pac 12 championship.
So, stop the run and Alabama should win the game. As it happens, Alabama is the #1 team in the country in stopping the run so the odds are forever in their favor that they will contain the Washington running game.
Can Browning win this game on his own? In a word, no. Here’s why…
Dominate the Trenches: Utah and USC both disrupted the pocket, forcing Browning to flee from his usual launch point. When Browning is on the move, he’s a sub par passer. Therefore, Alabama must dominate the trenches and generate pressure in the UW backfield. It’s of paramount importance that Alabama stuff the running game so Daron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen must own the interior of the line. USC says this is possible so we think it’s likely that Bama will own the line of scrimmage.
Contain the Edges: Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams will be asked to contain the edges as Miles Gaskin loves to sweep the ball and bounce the ball to the edges. Most of Gaskin’s big runs are outside the tackles so Alabama will have to contain the edges (as they always do).
John Ross: Ross caught 17 of Browning’s 42 touchdown passes this season and, against USC, Ross was THE focal point of nearly every single throw. Out of 37 passes on the day, 20 of them seemed targeted for Ross. Alabama really needs to keep a safety over the top of Ross and force the other UW receivers beat them. Alabama’s Achilles heel on defense this season has been giving up the deep ball and that is precisely where John Ross excels. Ross reminds us of Calvin Ridley and he will certainly beat man coverage more times than not so the Tide front will have to generate pressure and the defensive backs will need to disrupt the routes and timing of the passing game.
Chris Peterson: Washington’s best chance to win this game boils down to Chris Peterson. Peterson is one of the best coaches in the country and he’s had a month to break down the tape of Arkansas & Ole Miss throwing for over 400 yards against this vaunted Tide defense. He’s had a month to look at how Austin Appleby directed three outstanding drives against Alabama in the SEC Championship game. Peterson will employ a quick passing game predicated on timing and rhythm. He will attempt to attack Rashaan Evans in the passing game by targeting backs out of the backfield and tight ends down the seams. IF there is a game plan out there that can beat Alabama’s defense, Chris Peterson is the man who will find it.
Trick Plays: Peterson is, of course, renowned for his arsenal of trick plays. During the games we watched, the double pass seemed to be his favorite gadget play this season. If it’s in his bag of tricks then look for it to be used Saturday afternoon. With Evans starting his first game in place of Shaun Dion Hamilton, he will be challenged to make the right read and fill the right gaps. Look for Peterson to find a way to isolate him into coverage on some kind of throwback to a tight end or running back.
Student Body Left: The bread and butter of UW’s running game is a delayed lateral handoff that allows three (THREE) offensive linemen to pull and lead Gaskin around the edge. USC attacked this with safeties, linebackers and team managers so look for Alabama to do the same. Gaskin is very agile and has excellent vision to find yardage among the mass of humanity so look for Alabama to push up field and take out as many of these pullers as they can before the OL can get up the field to make their blocks.
Fun with Formations: Peterson will test Alabama’s alignments by shifting multiple tight ends, wide receivers and anyone else they can find to move around before the snap. If Bama overplays one side or the other, Washington has checks to attack the weak side with an option pitch.
- UW scored a touchdown on more than half of their opening possessions this season so the Tide better be ready at the opening kick.
- Gaskin is very fast and loves to get to the edge. Alabama must contain this. Oddly enough, nearly all of UW’s handoffs are of the delayed variety so the hope here is that it allows Alabama to get up the field and stuff the running lanes before they can open.
- Right guard Shane Brostek (#60) was repeatedly beaten in every game we watched. At just 289 lbs, he’s going to have a long day.
- Washington’s OL goes 309, 297, 293, 289 & 308 across the front line from left to right. Look for Tomlinson and Payne to dominate the guards and center as they introduce themselves to the country and take up residence in the Husky backfield.
- Browning has more agility than he gets credit for but he’s certainly not a dual threat QB. When he’s forced to flee the pocket, his accuracy does way, way down.
- Browning doesn’t have a lot of arm strength so he makes his living on timing and accuracy. Bama must disrupt routes and get pressure in his face in order to disrupt the passing game. Browning has a long windup and had a few passes batted down so that may play a factor, as well.
- Running back Lavon Coleman (#22) is asked to pass protect quite a bit and he’s not very good at it. If he stays in to block, look for Evans and/or Foster to come on a delayed blitz. God help Coleman on Saturday.
- If the Huskies line up in a bunch formation, look for Gaskin to run wide (usually away from the bunch).
- USC and Utah used twists and loops from their defensive ends with great effect. UW did not pick up these games with the linemen.
- Washington left the defensive end unblocked numerous times and, if you’ve read this blog a while, you know Alabama capitalizes on this by sending their DEs on a seek and destroy mission.
Final Thoughts on Defense
If Alabama can stuff the Washington running game then they will win the game. It’s just that simple. For all of the love of Browning, there are numerous examples of the running game being the key to the Huskies attack. The interior of the Bama line should overwhelm the UW front so Peterson will look to attack the flanks in an effort to get his skill guys outside of the brutality of the Tide defense. Ryan Anderson, Rueben Foster and Rashaan Evans will all have to play a huge game and we think they will.
This is actually a game where we think the special teams strongly favor Alabama’s opponent. John Ross (#1) returns kickoffs and he’s exceptional with the ball in his hands. Dante Pettis (#8) returned a punt for the winning score against Utah and is ranked 13th in the country in punt returns so the Huskies have two game breakers at the return positions.
Meanwhile, Alabama has been struggling to find their way in the return game since Eddie Jackson was injured. Also, Alabama is ranked 83rd in kick coverage so Washington has a huge advantage in the return game.
To the good, Alabama ranks 16th in the country in net punting (40.22) while Washington is ranked 122nd with a 33.98 yard net punting average so field position should be the Tide’s friend throughout the game.
The Huskies look to be more solid in the place kicking game as Cameron Van Winkle is 16 of 20 on the season, only missing one kick inside of 40 yards. However, Washington has allowed three kicks to be blocked this season – USC flew in off the left side to swat one down in their game so that could play a role.
On the Alabama side of the ledger, Adam Griffith comes into the game hitting 19 of 26, missing three times inside the 40. You’ll remember the Georgia Dome was a house of horrors for him during the SEC championship game so let’s watch those first few kicks to see how the ball is flying off Griffith’s foot.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
We expect this game to be a low scoring, hard fought contest and Alabama absolutely can lose this game if they play into the strengths of the Washington defense. Washington will likely generate points via the long pass to Ross, a trick play or two and an early drive that takes advantage of a slow start by Alabama. What the Tide simply cannot do is give the Huskies additional possessions by committing turnovers. Washington is one of the very few teams that offers up a challenging, balanced offensive attack so we’d prefer not to see them have any extra possessions.
Alabama’s offensive line should be able to overpower the Huskies at the point of attack so the Tide running game should play a huge role in getting Saban yet another win in Atlanta. If the Bama defense can stuff the UW running game as we expect, then it should be Alabama who is able to create turnovers and take advantage of UW mistakes.
It’s all fun and games until Alabama’s front line hits you in the mouth and then the shit squarely hits the fan. Alabama has been here. They’ve done this. They expect to do it again. Washington is here for the first time and when the game kicks off at 2PM EST, it will be 11AM PST on the west coast. In interviews, the UW players admitted the time change is “very real.” We expect they will say the same about the Alabama Crimson Tide as the Tide is “very real” as well. Look for Bama to win a close one and advance to Tampa…
Final Score: Alabama 24 Washington 20