By Brent Stecker
With their first bye week already behind them, the No. 19-ranked Huskies (1-0) are rested and ready to build on their impressive Week 1 victory over Boise State. What lies ahead is perhaps an even bigger test than what they faced in the opener, however – a 2-0 Illinois team that is on the cusp of the top 25 rankings and will be aided by a large home crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago Saturday afternoon.
On paper, the Huskies and Illini have a number of things in common. The most obvious is at quarterback, where both teams have senior leaders coming off big performances – Keith Price for Washington, and Nathan Scheelhaase for Illinois. While Price broke the 300-yard mark against Boise State, Scheelhaase may be even more dangerous with his arm; he’s completed 54 of 73 attempts (74 percent) in two games this season for 728 yards, six touchdowns and a lone interception.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has thrown for 728 yards, six touchdowns and one pick in Illinois’ two wins this year. (AP)
“They have a senior quarterback who is playing at an extremely high level,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday. “You’re talking about completing 75 percent of your balls – it’s not a dink-and-dunk offense.
“We know they’re going to throw the ball, I can tell you that, and they’re good at it. The kid’s thrown for almost 800 yards and a bunch of touchdowns and completes a lot of passes. How they get to those passes is what we have to try to figure out as the game goes on.”
Sarkisian, who expects Illinois keep the game moving at a fast pace on offense just like Washington likes to do, is concerned with stopping the exceptional speed of the Illini’s skill players like top receivers Josh Ferguson (six receptions, 158 yards) and Ryan Langford (seven receptions, 125 yards).
“They’re talented. They have a lot of athletes, a lot of offensive weapons,” Sarkisian said. “They have three tailbacks they rotate in. … They’ve got a lot of speed on that team, and that’s gonna be one of the biggest challenges for us is how to contain the speed and contain the quarterback.”
As for the Illini’s defense, though they’ve given up 51 points in their first two games, only 14 have come in the first half.
“They’re an impressive defensive unit,” he said. “They’re an opportunistic defense that plays good in the red zone and plays good on third down and gets off the field.”
A good bye
While some coaches may not like having two weeks between their first and second games of the season, Sarkisian is a big proponent of Washington’s Week 2 bye.
“I’m a big fan of this format. It allowed us to really assess some things,” he said. “You go through training camp and you go against yourself the whole time, and sometimes you think things look better than they are. Sometimes things that you maybe thought were a weakness all the sudden show up in a game better than you thought, too.
“For us, it was about reassessing our team after that game, and then focusing on areas of our team that, one, weren’t as good as maybe we thought they were, and two, start to build upon some things that became a real positive for us, that maybe we didn’t know because we hadn’t played against an opponent. I love that.”
Sarkisian appreciates that the Huskies could essentially treat the first game like a preseason contest.
“In this day and age now essentially you have two byes every year, so to have one early felt pretty good,” he said. “It’s almost like having a preseason game prior to the start of your season, so (you’re) really looking at your roster and being able to tweak some things.”
• Sarkisian said TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be a big part of Saturday’s game after sitting out the opener with a suspension for his March DUI citation.
“He’ll have a significant role in this game plan. He’ll have opportunities to catch the ball and he’ll have opportunities to have an effect in the run game,” Sarkisian said. “We’re glad to have him back. I think he makes us a better football team.”
• In running their up-tempo offense, Sarkisian said the Huskies can do a better job of getting the ball back to the umpire after plays and setting up at the line of scrimmage.
• Conditioning was a bright spot for Washington’s receivers against Boise State.
“Our receivers showed great conditioning,” Sarkisian said. “They caught the ball really well, (and) they didn’t show fatigue.”