Alameda Ta'amu (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)
The Washington Huskies open the 2011 season with a simple goal ... win a season-opener. It's something UW hasn't done since 2007, just twice since 2001 and never under third-year coach Steve Sarkisian. UW will be heavily favored to break that streak hosting Eastern Washington at Husky Stadium on Sept. 3.
Eastern Washington is a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, having finished 13-2 and winning the FCS title.
Sarkisian said Eastern Washington is "a team that's coming in here with a lot of confidence, that's won a lot of football games. More games than we've won the last two years, that's for sure. It will pose a great threat for us that way."
It's the first time UW has played a lower-division team, having been one of just four FBS teams not to play an FCS team until this season. Notre Dame, USC and UCLA are the only remaining teams not to play a lower-division team.
UW athletic director Scott Woodward said the Huskies made a conscious decision a few years ago to downgrade the schedule just a bit. Washington played Notre Dame, Oklahoma and BYU as its three non-conference opponents during his first year as athletic director in 2008.
The Huskies this year play a schedule that on paper will allow them to ease into the season a little bit, opening with Eastern Washington and Hawaii at home before traveling to Nebraska.
As might be expected, the Huskies say they don't expect the EWU game to be an easy win. Sarkisian noted that Eastern won the national title last year with a number of in-state players that are friends and former teammates of UW players and said "this was an easy motivator. ... they (his players) know these kids really. I think our kids feel the urgency for this ball game."
Eastern's greatest strength is its passing game. QB Bo Levi Mitchell, who began his career at SMU, threw for a school-record 37 touchdowns last season.
That could put some pressure on a UW back end that is young at the outside linebacker corps with new starters in freshman John Timu and sophomore Princeton Fuimaono, and could be without a fully healthy cornerback Quinton Richardson.
UW will undoubtedly use lots of nickel and dime defenses to combat Eastern's air attack, and will hope it can control the ball with its big offensive line in an attempt to get the season off on a rare winning note.
--The Huskies have decided to redshirt senior receiver Cody Bruns, who had a redshirt year available after playing sparingly as a true freshman in 2008. Bruns figured to be a reserve this year, but with the Huskies due to graduate Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar after this season he could play a larger role in 2012. Also, his father died suddenly in July and he has missed some practices to deal with personal matters back home.
--The Huskies will use two punters this season -- Kiel Rasp and Will Mahan -- each fifth-year seniors. Mahan was the starter in 2009 and for the first game in 2010 before suffering a knee injury. Rasp took over and averaged a school-record 43.76 yards per punt. Coach Steve Sarkisian said each had a good fall camp and that the team will find ways to use both this season.
--The Huskies could be down to two scholarship tailbacks for the Eastern game as starter Chris Polk remains questionable with a knee injury and backup Johri Fogerson was likewise questionable with a hip injury. That could leave UW with just sophomore Jesse Callier and true freshman Bishop Sankey at the tailback spot.
SERIES HISTORY: First meeting.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The focus will be on sophomore Keith Price, making his first start at QB as the successor to Jake Locker (and second overall). Expect the Huskies to make it easy for him early with lots of high-percentage passes and dependence on the running game. UW has been glowing in praise of its receiving corps, so the Huskies will look for mismatches there. With Chris Polk likely out, the Huskies will give sophomore Jesse Callier the first start of his career. Callier had some big runs outside last year, though he wasn't asked to do much between the tackles. But UW will hope that its expected superiority up front against a lower-division foe will allow it to dominate.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Huskies think this will be the deepest, fastest, most physical defense they have had during the three-year Steve Sarkisian era. It could also be the biggest up front with UW having the potential of using four different tackles who weigh more than 300 pounds led by senior nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu. UW will hope to use that dominance on the line to shut down EWU's running game and disrupt the Eagles' quick passing attack. EWU will surely complete some passes, but if the Huskies tackle well in the secondary and handle their assignments, the hope is they won't give up any big plays and will force the Eagles to march down the field. UW hopes to play more man defense this year in the secondary and that philosophy could get a test against the Eagles.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Trust me -- no kid on this team is overlooking this game." -- Senior linebacker Cort Dennison on the team's opener against defending FCS champ Eastern Washington.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL:
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Eastern Washington at Washington, Sept. 3 -- UW's first game against a lower division foe comes against the best one there is as the Eagles are the defending FCS champion. Eastern also has a number of players from the Seattle area who will look at this game as their chance to make a name for themselves and their team.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Start fast. The task in any game against a lower-division foe is to not give that team any confidence, not let them hang around. The Huskies need to come out strong and take an early lead and get the crowd into it and not allow the Eagles to think they can win it.
--Get Keith Price going. This will be the first start for Price in his new role as the team's established starter and the hope is he gets some confidence in this game to carry him into the tougher tests that await. It won't be a surprise if the Huskies use a lot of high-percentage passes early to get Price some confidence.
--Be special on special teams. UW was disappointing in many areas of special teams last season, notably coverage and return units. This could be a good game to get some momentum going in that area.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Keith Price -- Price has played sparingly other than going all the way last year in a 53-16 loss at Oregon. But the show is now his and the pressure will be on to show he can lead the team. Coaches say they are confident in his passing ability and low-key persona that they think can help him weather the inevitable ups and downs.
RB Jesse Callier -- With starter Chris Polk questionable, the bulk of the carries will go to Callier, a sophomore who rushed for 433 yards last season as the primary backup. He did much of his work a year ago on fly sweeps and other outside runs but coaches say they are confident in Callier to also be able to get the tough yards inside.
DT Alameda Ta'amu -- The 330-pound senior nose tackle is being touted as a potential first-round draft choice. This is the kind of game in which he should be able to dominate and create lots of space for the outside rushers to get to the quarterback.
CB Desmond Trufant --The junior has been called by coaches as one of the MVPs of training camp. He'll get plenty of chances to show his improvement against an Eastern team that likes to throw the ball.
--Two members of the freshmen Class of 2011 were not cleared by the NCAA to play -- receiver Marvin Hall and running back Kyle Lewis. UW is appealing the decision on Hall. Also, JC transfer cornerback Antavius Sims has yet to be admitted into school while still finishing up work at Ventura (Calif.) College.
--CB Quinton Richardson, who missed about two weeks with a high ankle sprain, returned to practice on Monday but his status for the game remained in question.
--LB Victor Burnett, who was the fourth-team middle linebacker, was dismissed early in training camp for a violation of team rules.