University of Washington

Cactus Bowl: Cyler Miles, Huskies’ offense looking to continue positive trend

The Washington Huskies started a quarterback this season who has a chance Friday to set a single-season school record for completion percentage, as well as the lowest interception percentage in UW single-season history and the fourth-best single-season passer rating in UW history.

Their starting tailback averages 5.5 yards per carry, but that figure doesn’t even lead the team because a multi-talented linebacker slid into the position for a few weeks and averaged 7.5.

And yet, despite Cyler Miles’ accuracy and ability to avoid throwing the ball to players on the other team, and Dwayne Washington’s emergence as the team’s best, most explosive ballcarrier, it would be far from accurate to term this season a rousing success for the Huskies’ offense. At times, it’s been closer to a disappointment.

But it has improved. So Friday’s Cactus Bowl game at Sun Devil Stadium against the Oklahoma State Cowboys presents a final opportunity for the Huskies to feel good about their offense heading into Year 2 of the Chris Petersen era.

How close are they to reaching their potential, as Petersen sees it? Good question. But he obviously thinks there’s plenty to add and fix. Washington ranks 76th nationally at 390.2 yards per game.

“I think we made some good strides that last third of the season,” Petersen said during his final pre-bowl press conference Thursday morning in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I thought that’s kind of how we were hoping to play probably more early on. So, you know, I don’t know what the potential is. I still think we have more to us, more in us. I do think the last part of the season was certainly more enjoyable for everybody on offense, when you feel like you’re getting better.”

And while Oklahoma State isn’t the same team it was while winning eight or more games in each of the six previous seasons – and the Cowboys would finish with a losing record this year if the Huskies beat them – scoring on them should still be more of a challenge for the Huskies than scoring on, say, Washington State.

For Miles in particular, it’s a chance to end a rocky 2014 season with a positive performance. Though the redshirt sophomore has completed 66.7 percent of his passes and thrown 16 touchdown passes to just three interceptions, his arm strength has been questioned throughout a season that featured surprisingly little in the way of a downfield passing game.

So while Miles has the nation’s 12th-best completion percentage among quarterbacks who played in 75 percent of their team’s games and attempted at least 15 passes per game, his 7.3 yards-per-attempt average is mediocre. And he’s struggled too often to simply hold onto the football, dropping shotgun snaps and sometimes fumbling being hit.

Petersen is right about those past three games, though. Against Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State, Miles completed 63 of 91 passes for 725 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. That’s a completion percentage of 69.2, and a healthier clip of 8.0 yards per pass attempt.

“I think he was a little bit better in the pocket. I think he anticipated and saw some things a little bit cleaner and a little bit faster,” Petersen said. “I think when you’re watching some tape, practice, whatever, it’s that anticipation. It’s like you’ve just got to trust those holes a little bit more, throw it in there on time. That’s really a hard thing. It’s really the difference between somebody playing good defense and you playing better offense.

“That’s the thing that I think he got a little bit better at. That’s the whole deal of playing quarterback in terms of being great in the pocket, throwing with anticipation, decision making, however you want to say that. I think he made some strides there.”

Also, the Huskies coaching staff gained a better understanding of which play calls suited Miles’ skillset. That process didn’t start as soon as it could have because Miles was suspended for all of spring practice after being investigated in connection with a Feb. 2 assault.

“I think we continue to feel like we know him better, what he likes to do better and have tried to stick to that stuff,” offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “I do think he’s played better the last three games. That’s what our goal going in the whole time was — we thought early on, it wasn’t just going to be flawless, because of all the time he’s missed.”

UW’s running game is starting to function properly, too. Injuries and inconsistency slowed that facet of the Huskies’ offense, but with Dwayne Washington fully healthy and now atop the depth chart, it seems they’ve found their featured back. He’s rushed for 383 yards and five touchdowns – including scores of 66, 68, 51 and 60 yards – in the past three games.

On Friday, though, more eyes figure to be on Miles, who could use another positive performance to carry into the offseason.

“He’s got a lot more confidence,” junior receiver Jaydon Mickens said. “He understands down and distance, what balls he needs to take some air off, what balls he needs to put some air on. He’s just been getting the little details down at the quarterback position that are going to make him a great quarterback.”

Christian Caple: 253-597-8437