The Washington Huskies begin the Pac-12 portion of their schedule with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Arizona. Here are five things to watch as the Huskies face their biggest challenge of the season so far:
1. Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins.
Coach Rich Rodriguez hasn’t said who will start at quarterback for his Wildcats this week, but the popular assumption is that third-year sophomore Brandon Dawkins will make his third consecutive start in place of the injured Anu Solomon.
Dawkins presents the kind of challenge the Huskies haven’t really seen yet — a quarterback for whom several designed runs will be called, who can also do damage through the air.
Last week, Dawkins threw for 235 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for another 118 yards and three touchdowns. He’s not as experienced as Solomon, a fourth-year junior, but is seen as a better runner and might give the Wildcats’ offense some more variety against UW’s speedy defense.
Not that it changes UW’s preparations, coach Chris Petersen said.
“You’re really defending the system,” he said.
The Huskies have defended Rodriguez’s system well under Petersen, limiting Arizona to just three points and 3.8 yards per play last season. The year prior, an Arizona team ranked 17th in the country managed 4.7 yards per play.
“I think our guys just played well,” Petersen said of the past two years. “I don’t think our system is that much different than some other people they played. I think our guys just executed.”
2. Arizona tailback J.J. Taylor.
The Wildcats would certainly love to have star running back Nick Wilson healthy for this game. He’s officially listed as “questionable” with an ankle injury, meaning it is unlikely he will be able to go.
But Arizona appears to have a capable backup in true freshman tailback J.J. Taylor, a 5-foot-6, 170-pound speedster who rushed for 168 yards last week against Hawaii and had a 61-yard touchdown run.
The Huskies will benefit from Wilson being out, if indeed he doesn’t play. Taylor, though, isn’t easy to tackle, either.
“I mean, that’s going to be one of the challenges, is getting our hands on him,” Petersen said. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he is one of the quickest, for sure. So they’ve seen him on tape, and our guys know that it’s about spreading you out and creating one-on-one matchups and letting him do his thing. And it can’t come down to one guy.”
3. Will Taylor Rapp start again?
As deep and experienced as the Huskies’ defensive secondary is, true freshman Taylor Rapp was still able to play himself into a starting role in UW’s nickel package last week against Portland State.
Rapp, a 6-foot, 202-pound safety from Bellingham, has 10 tackles in three games. He enrolled in January and participated in spring practices despite breaking his hand on the second day.
Coaches praise his intelligence and technique.
“I have him at one position, he picks it up so quick,” UW defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “I think three days later, I put him at another position, and then he picked up that position. I said OK, this guy is understanding this defense pretty quickly.
“Then we get into training camp and the same thing’s going on. We’ve been able to move him around. He understands the defense. He’s a tough, physical football player. He’s one of our surer tacklers that we have, which really showed up in special teams those first two games.”
4. Jaylen Johnson could make his 2016 debut.
Washington’s defensive line hasn’t had much problem dispatching of its first three opponents, but the Huskies could be about to regain another valuable piece.
Jaylen Johnson, a third-year sophomore who appeared to be competing for a starting position during training camp, missed UW’s first three games due to injury, but sounds as if he may be ready to play this week.
Petersen said on Monday that Johnson is “very, very close” to being able to play. If he can, that gives the Huskies yet another capable body to use in their D-line rotation, which might be particularly important against an up-tempo offense on a hot day in Tucson.
“We just don’t want to put him at risk until he is full speed, ready to go,” Petersen said.
5. How will Huskies handle the road … and the desert?
For whatever reason, games in the state of Arizona have flummoxed the Huskies in the last decade; their last road victory over the Wildcats was in 2006, and they haven’t defeated Arizona State on the road since 2001.
Much of that might be coincidental. Some of it is due simply to the fact that Washington has not been very good in the past 15 years. But a decade of confounding results in the desert makes what otherwise might be viewed as a relatively ideal Pac-12 opener a little trickier.
(For the record, the Huskies are thus far 6-5 on the road under Petersen, and 1-1 in neutral-site games.)
To prepare for the heat, the Huskies practiced indoors this week, with the temperature cranked to desert-like levels.
Waiting around for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff, though, might be the hardest part.
“We have a couple of meetings, a couple of walk-throughs,” Petersen said. “Watch some games. Staring at your watch a lot. That’s kind of how it goes.”
NO. 9 WASHINGTON (3-0, 0-0 PAC-12) AT ARIZONA (2-1, 0-0)
7:30 p.m., Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Arizona
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
The series: Washington leads, 20-11-1.
The pick: UW, 42-21.
9 — Myles Gaskin, RB (5-10, 195, so.): Yet to eclipse 100-yard mark in a game this year.
32 — Budda Baker, FS (5-10, 192, jr.): Looking for first INT, and could play offense.
81 — Brayden Lenius, WR (6-5, 231, jr.): Will he return from 3-game suspension this week?
99 — Greg Gaines, DT (6-2, 318, so.): Big run-stopper will be key.
5 — Trey Griffey, WR (6-2, 209, sr.): Son of Ken Griffey Jr. leads team with 153 receiving yards.
10 — Samajie Grant, WR (5-9, 180, sr.): 126 receiving yards so far.
11 — Michael Barton, LB (6-0, 237, sr.): 16 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 1 sack.
14 — Paul Magloire Jr., LB (6-1, 227, sr.): Leads team with 20 tackles, 2.0 TFL.
Christian Caple: email@example.com