University of Washington

After two shaky victories, Huskies looking for better against Illinois

Through two games, the Washington Huskies have fulfilled their most important goal, which is winning. They’re 2-0.

It’s everything else that has the most reactionary of fans worrying the sky might be falling.

Little went right in a season-opening 17-16 victory at Hawaii. The defense was suspect early, then salty late. The offense barely showed up.

A change of quarterbacks ignited a 59-point outburst against Eastern Washington in Week 2. But the Huskies’ defense, namely its inexperienced secondary, allowed 475 yards passing and 52 points. Another win, but still too many uh-oh moments.

So now here comes Illinois, the Huskies’ first power-conference foe of the 2014 season, for a 1 p.m. game Saturday at Husky Stadium.

Against the Fighting Illini (2-0 this season, 4-8 in 2013), UW is in search of a defensive performance resembling what it did against Hawaii (but probably a little better), and an offensive performance similar to what it did against Eastern (but probably a little more balanced).

“I never know how these darn games are going to go, but I would suspect that out of this game,” coach Chris Petersen said. “Somewhere in between the first and the second game.”

The Huskies are 13.5-point favorites in Las Vegas over the Illini, who needed fourth-quarter comebacks in home victories over Youngstown State and Western Kentucky.

But their starting quarterback, Wes Lunt, a third-year sophomore transfer from Oklahoma State, could pose a threat to the Huskies’ young defensive backfield. Lunt has completed 67 percent of his passes this season for 741 yards, seven touchdowns and an interception, including a 456-yard performance in last week’s victory over Western Kentucky.

“I would say I was more comfortable” in Week 2 than Week 1, Lunt told reporters in Illinois on Monday. “Definitely did some things that I shouldn’t have, but that comes with experience. As an offense, I thought we got better as the game went on, and I just need to focus on starting faster.”

Going into last season’s trip to play the Illini in Chicago, the Huskies knew they were in for some of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s wacky formations with a mobile senior, Nathan Scheelhaase, at quarterback.

The offense is much more pocket-pass-oriented this season with Lunt, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 225 pounds.

“I think he’s a good player,” Petersen said. “He was a good player in high school and he’s a really good player now. I think when it’s all said and done, he’ll be one of the top quarterbacks in college football. I think he’s a sophomore, he’s got a lot of football ahead of him, and the way he can throw it, his arm strength and all those things, he looks really good.”

With star junior cornerback Marcus Peters reportedly suspended, it’s possible the Huskies could start an all-underclassman defensive backfield. Their only upperclassman in line to see time at cornerback is fifth-year senior Travell Dixon, who took over for Peters after he was benched following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and sideline outburst against Eastern Washington.

Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha said it’s not all on the secondary and that the Huskies have to improve “whatever we can. Everything that we do out on the field. We can get better at a ton of things. Up front, stopping the run, that has to be a focus as always, and then getting pressure on the quarterback.”

The latter will be more important, because Illinois ranks 119th in the nation in rushing offense and has attempted only 57 rushes this season.

Still, senior defensive tackle Danny Shelton remembers the Big Ten size of Illinois’ offensive line from a year ago, and expects a formidable matchup.

“They’re going to come out and try to bully and power it right down our throats,” Shelton said. “So we’re going to have to step up and dominate.”

Something they’ve yet to do this season.

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