A trying week for the Washington Huskies football team won’t get any easier Saturday.
Three days after coach Chris Petersen dismissed top cornerback Marcus Peters from the program, the Huskies host the No. 18 UCLA Bruins and their versatile, NFL-bound quarterback Brett Hundley.
And their 1,000-yard rusher, Paul Perkins. And a defense that held Arizona to seven points last week.
But Hundley, the fourth-year junior who completes 71 percent of his passes and has rushed for 546 yards, is the guy who makes everything go.
Never miss a local story.
“He’s definitely the best runner we’ve faced,” UW defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “I haven’t looked at the stats, but I’m sure he has more rushing yards than all those quarterbacks (like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams of Eastern Washington). And he looks to run, and he doesn’t quarterback slide. He’s running through you like a tailback. And he’s a big, physical specimen, so it’s going to be all hands on deck to make sure we get him to the ground.”
Hundley, at 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds, will be a difficult target for Washington’s pass rush – though the Bruins (7-2 overall, 4-2 in Pac-12) have yielded 30 sacks this season, more than all but seven other teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
It’s when Hundley goes through his progression on a passing play, deems each of his receivers sufficiently covered, then sprints toward the first-down marker – or past it – that his most devastating talent is displayed.
On 128 rushing attempts, Hundley has gained a net of 546 yards. That’s an average of 4.3 yards per carry, but it also includes 28 of the 30 sacks UCLA has allowed this season. Take those out, and he’s averaging a little more than seven yards per rush.
“Hundley’s really athletic,” said senior outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, the nation’s sacks leader with 15.5. “He’ll make you miss, and he can hurt you with his feet and he’s got a strong arm. Again, another dual-threat quarterback that’s really talented.”
The Huskies (6-3, 2-3) must also cover UCLA’s talented receivers – Jordan Payton, a 6-1, 213-pound junior probably rates as the toughest assignment – and they’ll do it without Peters, one of the nation’s best cornerbacks. Instead, true freshman Naijiel Hale will start in his place, joining fellow freshmen Sidney Jones and Budda Baker, plus sophomore Kevin King, as starters in UW’s ultrayoung secondary.
For assistance, the Huskies this week moved sophomore receiver John Ross to the defensive side of the ball, where he’s likely to help out some as a nickel cornerback (though it would be fairly surprising if he didn’t also play some offense).
Even in last week’s 38-23 victory at Colorado, tackling was an issue. It can’t be against UCLA if the Huskies hope to win their first game against a ranked opponent since last season’s opener against Petersen’s Boise State team (which finished 8-5).
UW should get some defensive help this week from linebacker Shaq Thompson, who is expected to start again at tailback but should also play a little defense.
“It comes back to us running to the ball, being fanatical about it, running with good leverage, and then tackling,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “You take all the scheme and all that stuff out of it, it boils down to that. In the games that we’ve struggled, tackling has been a nemesis. Obviously that’s a priority every week, but it’s a big one this week.”
So, too, is tuning out the noise surrounding Peters’ dismissal.
“There’s always so many distractions, and you’re just trying to stay focused on the game,” Petersen said. “That’s part of the game, part of life. We really practiced well this week. We’ve got a heck of an opponent, so hopefully that will translate.”