Arizona-Washington preview: Husky D, players to watch, predictio - Tucson News Now

Arizona-Washington preview: Husky D, players to watch, prediction

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Rod Smith, Arizona's quarterback coach and co-offensive coordinator, pondered a question about Washington's defense.

"They're big; they're physical; they're long," he said.

He smiled.

"You know, if you like that kind of player."

Smith was able to make a little funny about the Wildcats' challenge Saturday night at Arizona Stadium against the ninth-ranked Huskies (7:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network). Yes, we do like our defensive guys to be big and fast and strong. Call us crazy. We're into that kind of thing.

"They're probably as big and explosive as any team in the country," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said of the Huskies' defense. "NFL guys tell us they probably have seven guys on defense alone that are Sunday players."

NFLDraftScout.com lists six Washington defenders as draft-worthy players in 2017:

S Budda Baker (35th-best prospect overall)

CB Sidney Jones (67th)

LB Azeem Victor (95th)

DT Elijah Qualls (163rd)

CB Kevin King (166th)

DE/LB Joe Mathis (208th)

All but King and Mathis are juniors.

Other defenders not included (at least as of yet) as 2017 draft possibilities are defensive linemen Vita Vea and Greg Gaines, both redshirt sophomores who could come out after this season. They are two of the three 300-pounders on the UW defensive line; Qualls is the other.

This is a Washington defense that led the Pac-12 last season in total defense (351.8 yards per game) and scoring defense (18.8 points per game).

This is a Washington first-team defense that has yet to allow a touchdown in three games this season.

This is a Washington defense that held Arizona to 330 yards and three points, while forcing four turnovers, in last season's 49-3 victory in Seattle.

"They killed us," Rodriguez said. "But our guys work hard, and I know that they want to put on a better performance than they did a year ago."

Three Husky offensive players to know

1. QB Jake Browning -- The sophomore is the national leader in passing efficiency (206.9 rating) and has throw nine touchdown passes in the past two games. "I was impressed with him last year, but you can just see he's more comfortable with everything they're doing," Rodriguez said. "He's almost spot-on in every decision, which, for a second-year player, is pretty remarkable."

2. RB Myles Gaskin -- He hasn't had a huge game yet this season, but he hasn't had to in three routs. He carried just 13 times last week against Portland State, gaining 93 yards and scoring twice, once on a reception. He rushed for 1,302 yards last season as a true freshman.

3. WR John Ross -- The speedy threat is helping Washington open up its offense following his return from a knee injury that cost him all of last season. He has four kick return scores, too, including one in this season's opener against Rutgers.

Hang on to the ball

Rodriguez reminded his players after Tuesday's practice of the team rule -- when an offensive play is done, hand the ball to the ref. This includes any touchdown play.

This is a topic that needed addressed because three players across the country in the past two weeks, perhaps trying to be cool, have simply voluntarily and accidentally dropped the ball before crossing the goal line. 

"We always have a rule that whoever carries the ball -- offense or defense, if the defense gets a turnover -- that we hand the ball to the official," Rodriguez said.

"For two reasons. One, to get the tempo going quicker and, two, to ensure you don't put the ball on the ground like that. But there were a couple of times this season already where we had a guy score and he's not even halfway through the end zone and he just drops the ball on the ground."

Rodriguez was asked what punishment he would dole out if a player dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.

"Well, the things I would like to do I can't say," he said.

Five facts

1. Washington hasn't played as a ranked team in Tucson since 1997, when the No. 10 Huskies won 58-28.

2. Arizona has defeated a Top 10 team in each of Rodriguez's first four seasons in Tucson.

3. The home team has won the past eight games in the Arizona-Washington series.

4. The Wildcats are 5-3 at home against ranked teams in the Rodriguez era, including a 3-1 mark against Top 10 teams.

5. Washington has won six consecutive games, dating to last season, scoring 40-plus points in each of them.

The last time in Tucson

When Washington played here in 2014, Arizona won 27-26 and kicker Casey Skowron had the best football day of his life:

Injury update

Arizona's original starting backfield -- quarterback Anu Solomon (knee) and running back Nick Wilson (ankle) might not play this week. Each was listed as questionable.

We wrote this week about the new (exciting) young guys taking their place -- quarterback Brandon Dawkins and true freshman running back J.J. Taylor. With not much else at running back, Arizona got slot receiver Tyrell Johnson ready this week in practice. The junior -- the fastest guy on the team -- has dabbled at the position at Arizona and played it in high school.

Worse news is that nose guard Parker Zellers (knee) and outside linebacker DeAndre' Miller (ankle) are out. That's two of Arizona's top players at the line or scrimmage.

At quarterback, if Solomon can't go, the backup likely will continue to be walk-on Zach Werlinger. True freshman dual-threat Khalil Tate appears headed for a redshirt season and won't be pulled out of it to be some kind of potential all-purpose threat.

"He wants to play quarterback, and I told him I would give him every opportunity to play quarterback," said Smith, the quarterbacks coach.

"I want him to play quarterback. And I think he can if he continues to progress. He's better this week than he was last week. He was better last week than the previous week. I tell him, sometimes guys want to play too fast. You want to play when you're ready.

"Can he help us somewhere? Probably he could, because he's that talented. But that will be Coach Rodriguez's call. I would rather keep him at quarterback with me, keep grooming him, because I think he can be pretty good there."

Prediction

Washington has played one of the nation's worst Power 5 conference teams (Rutgers), a program that will leave the FBS after next season (Idaho) and a lower-division opponent (Portland State). Cakewalks.

The pollsters have showed a lot of faith in the Huskies, ranking them No. 9 ahead of other 3-0 teams who have actually played against something other than tackling dummies.

That's not to say Washington isn't legit. You can see the talent. But this is the Huskies' first road game, first night game, first Pac-12 game -- against a program that has a big history of upsets at home. So, I'm going to slightly leave the door open for an upset possibility.

But unless Washington is looking ahead to Stanford and Oregon in the next two weeks, and Arizona comes up with four or five turnovers Saturday night, the Huskies are too big, too fast and too strong on defense for the Wildcats to overcome.

Washington 44, Arizona 21.

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