Bowl season is in full swing and the Cougars get their turn in the spotlight tonight when they take on the Washington Huskies in the Fight Hunger Bowl. BYU’s final stretch of 2013 was a mixed bag after the Cougars took care of Nevada and Idaho State, but fell when the pressure was on against Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Overall, the Cougars can call this season a success, but a win over Washington would be an exclamation point for a team seeking a signature win. Washington was a much better team than its record, falling only to ranked teams Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA en route to an 8-4 season. Although coach Steve Sarkisian bolted for USC, the Huskies still have talented players at their disposal and will be a tough test behind Keith Price, Bishop Sankey and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. Here’s a position-by-position look at this week’s matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Friday’s game:
Sophomore Taysom Hill had his share of struggles in the beginning of the season, but came into his own after a blistering four touchdown, 408 total yards game against Boise State. Removing a three interception outing in a lopsided victory over Idaho State, Hill had eight touchdowns to only two interceptions in the last five games of the year along with two rushing touchdowns. His dual threat style will also be a positive after Washington struggled against similar quarterbacks like Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and Taylor Kelly in Pac-12 play. However, Hill will have to make smart decisions with the ball while keeping the Huskies honest with his legs for the Cougars to take this one.
Senior Keith Price finally played up to his potential in his final year at Washington, serving as a great compliment to Sankey as a talented passer. Price had five games this season with over 300 yards passing and had a six touchdowns to only two interceptions in the toughest games of the season against Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA. Price won’t beat the Cougars with his legs, but has plenty of arm strength and had five touchdowns and only one interception along with 537 yards against Idaho State and Boise State, two BYU opponents this year. Overall, Price also has a better range of weapons at his disposal, giving him an edge over Hill.
Jamaal Williams overcame a scary concussion against Utah, but came back to be a backfield threat for BYU for the rest of the season. Williams rushed for under 70 yards only once during the last eight weeks of 2013 and had a combined 469 yards and four touchdowns in the last four weeks against Wisconsin, Idaho State, Notre Dame and Nevada. However, Williams also went through long stretches of the season without scoring, including through the first five weeks of the season. He also struggled against more talented defensive teams, going scoreless against Texas, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. BYU will need him to rush for at least 100 yards and to reach the endzone at least once, if not twice, to win this one.
Junior Bishop Sankey was not only one of the best ‘backs in the Pac-12, but announced himself as one of the best in the nation with his play this season. Sankey had over 120 yards rushing in an astounding nine games this season with three games over 200 yards rushing. He broke the Washington single-season rushing record with 1,775 yards this season and had 19 total touchdowns as the clear focal point of the Washington offense. If the Cougars can limit only one of Washington’s weapons, it will have to be Sankey.
Ross Apo is out for this game, leaving more pressure on Cody Hoffman, Skyler Ridley and JD Falslev to produce. Hoffman will be key in his last game at BYU and will need to produce much better than he did at the end of the season after catching only nine passes for 90 yards in the final three games. If Hoffman can replicate his 113 yard, two touchdown performance against Wisconsin, the Cougars will be in good shape. Falslev scored twice in the last two games of the season and Ridley is always a solid option, but both will need to elevate their play to help Hill.
The best pass catcher on the field will arguably be a tight end in this game. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the 6-foot 6-inch junior has been a matchup terror all season long outmuscling safeties and corners and speeding past linebackers. He had seven touchdowns this season along with 443 yards receiving and caught three touchdowns in the last four games of the season. Sophomore receiver Jaydon Mickens’ production tailed off at the end of the year and senior receiver Kevin Smith scored only once in the last six games, but both provide legitimate options for Price. Seferian-Jenkins’ athleticism gives Washington a slight edge in this one.
BYU’s offensive line had its share of struggles early in the season, but shored up as the year went on. Hill was sacked four times by Wisconsin, but only twice against Notre Dame. The BYU offensive line surrendered only two sacks in the Nevada game. However, the Cougars will face a tough challenge against Washington. The Huskies ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 36 sacks this season, only four behind conference leader’s Stanford and Arizona State.
The Washington offensive line was statistically worse than the Cougars’, giving up 30 sacks to BYU’s 24 this season. However, Washington also faced tougher competition week-in and week-out against Pac-12 defensive lines. The offensive line play has also been key to Sankey’s success this season as the Huskie’s front has mauled most teams they’ve come up against in the run game. Overall, this position should be fairly even.
Defensive line and linebackers:
Spencer Hadley won’t play for the Cougars, a big loss when trying to contain Sankey. Regardless, this game will be all about Kyle Van Noy’s last game in a BYU uniform. Van Noy had a performance for the ages last year in the Poinsettia Bowl and will hope to have similar success against the Huskies. However, his production dipped in the latter half of the season after teams began double and triple teaming him or scheming plays away from his side of the field. It will be up to Van Noy, Eathyn Manumaleuna and Uani ‘Unga to not only make Price uncomfortable, but also to keep Sankey in check and cover Seferian-Jenkins.
Washington’s defensive front begins and ends with junior defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha, who has been dominant this season. Kikaha has 10 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, 61 tackles and two forced fumbles this season. BYU will have to do whatever they can to slow him down before focusing on anyone else. Another player to watch is sophomore linebacker Cory Littleton, who has 58 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks of his own.
BYU’s defensive backfield will face one of its toughest tests this season against Price and a Washington offense averaging 39 points and 271 yards passing per game. BYU surrenders only around 226 yards through the air per game and should be up to the task of containing the Huskies’ receivers on the outside. The real challenge, as stated earlier, will be finding someone to consistently shadow Seferian-Jenkins. Assuming Van Noy stays near the line of scrimmage, it will more than likely be up to Fua or ‘Unga to limit him.
Washington forced only 15 interceptions this season, right in the middle of the Pac-12. However, the Huskies have also surrendered only 15 passing touchdowns this season, good for second in the Pac-12, and only give up about 222 yards through the air per game. Sophomore Marcus Peters has already emerged as a ballhawk for Washington, grabbing five interceptions this season along with nine pass breakups. Senior Sean Parker has four interceptions of his own, creating a challenge for Hill, who had at least one interception in all but three games this year. Peters is as close to a shutdown corner as there is in college football and it will be up to Hoffman to figure out his coverage early.
Prediction: BYU comes into this game with a few advantages, facing a Washington team whose coach left for USC and having the leadership of Van Noy for one last game. However, the Huskies are just too talented all around and should overcome the loss of Sarkisian fairly easily. Sankey will get his yards and Price will have his opportunity to take shots down the field while Kikaha and Peters will force Hill into a few mistakes. BYU couldn’t quite overcome superior competition this season with losses to Wisconsin and Notre Dame and will lose this one 35-21.