Brock Huard’s keys for No. 4 Huskies vs No. 1 Alabama in national semifinal Peach Bowl

Dec 29, 2016, 6:00 AM
Brock Huard said scouts have UW's John Ross tabbed as the second or third best WR in the 2017 NFL D...
Brock Huard said scouts have UW's John Ross tabbed as the second or third best WR in the 2017 NFL Draft. (AP)

Peach Bowl: No. 4 Washington (12-1) vs. No. 1 Alabama (13-0)

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Kickoff: Noon, Saturday
Radio: 710 ESPN Seattle
Line: Alabama by 14.

Petersen’s impact | 2-TD underdogs | Pass D is key | Taking shots | Carroll’s take

Washington at a glance: The Huskies have truly returned to a level of prominence not seen since the days of Don James, qualifying for the four-team College Football Playoff in a season in which their only loss came to a red-hot USC team. In head coach Chris Petersen’s third season at the helm, Washington has been one of the most balanced offensive teams in the country thanks to stellar sophomore years by quarterback Jake Browning (42 touchdowns to just seven interceptions) and running back Myles Gaskin (1,339 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns), plus a star-making junior campaign by wide receiver/kick returner John Ross (1,122 receiving yards, 17 touchdown receptions). Just as important has been the 11th best defense in America, which has allowed just 316.2 yards per game and is equally as balanced, ranking 20th against the run and 21st against the pass.

Alabama at a glance: Under head coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide aren’t just the unquestioned top team in the country this year, they’re the premier college football program of this era. Undefeated in 2016, Alabama’s unbeaten streak actually dates back to Week 3 of the 2015 season, and it still won the national title that year – its fourth since 2009, the program’s third season under Saban. This version of the Tide is led by an especially stout run defense that has allowed just 63.4 rushing yards per game, which is far and away the best in America. They perform well running the ball on offense, too, with an average of 245 yards on the ground that ranks 13th in the FBS. Alabama also ranks 15th in passing defense (184.5 yards allowed per game), leaving passing offense (70th, 226.3 yards per game) as the closest thing to a weakness the Tide may have.

Brock Huard’s key No. 1 for UW: Be prepared for a defensive front like no other. The “hateful” front seven of Alabama will be the single biggest challenge for UW. Think USC and turn up the speed, talent and ferocity another notch. While notions that Alabama could compete successfully against an NFL team are a farce, the Tide’s front seven is loaded with three first-round NFL picks. Buckle up.

Key No. 2: Don’t abandon the run. Alabama’s group is stout on the interior and fast on the perimeter, and that versatility is a big reason why they are the country’s best run defense, and by a lot – the Crimson Tide have allowed 34.5 less rushing yards per game than second-best Wisconsin. Middle linebacker Reuben Foster is a game wrecker, as is his buddy defensive end Jonathan Allen, who in many ways is the Aaron Donald of college football. That said, the only way for the Huskies to influence play-action passes and to get to the gadget plays on the call sheet is to have a commitment and conviction to mix the run game, no matter the level of yardage.

Key No. 3: Make Alabama QB Jalen Hurts uncomfortable in the pocket. This is not one of Alabama’s dominant offensive lines, and it may in fact be the most challenged of Saban’s dynastic run in Tuscaloosa upfront. In many ways, it’s why Saban and outgoing offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin turned to dual-threat freshman QB Jalen Hurts to create and get out of messes in and around the line of scrimmage. Hurts is the X-factor, and as the Huskies experienced with USC’s Sam Darnold, the off-schedule plays created by eluding sacks and escaping out of the pocket can be some of the most dangerous and impactful in big games. Making Hurts throw from a squeezed pocket will be the priority of the Huskies, and it’s exactly what LSU did in shutting down the Tide for 3 1/2 quarters in a game that ended in a 10-0 Alabama win.

Key No. 4: Get John Ross involved to open up things on offense. John Ross has the ability to make his own space, and that will be enormous for Jake Browning. Jake’s going to feel a collapsed pocket and is going to have limited passing windows, therefore someone who can separate and create space (Ross) will be essential.

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Brock Huard’s keys for No. 4 Huskies vs No. 1 Alabama in national semifinal Peach Bowl