FCS foe should give Huskies chance to hone skills
Sandwiched between two marquee road matchups — first, last week’s 21-16 loss against Auburn, and a Sept. 15 trip to Utah — No. 9-ranked Washington hosts Football Championship Subdivision opponent North Dakota at Husky Stadium on Saturday.
Assorted miscues, like a fumbled option pitch near the goal-line during Saturday’s second half, denied Washington (0-1) a chance at a signature win. Beating North Dakota (1-0) would not qualify as a signature victory — Washington is undefeated against FCS competition since first scheduling opponents from the subdivision in 2011 — but at least would put the Huskies in the win column ahead of an important road trip in Week 3.
“You’re curious about how the first game’s going to go, and how guys are going to step up on a really big stage in a hostile environment,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said of his takeaway from Week 1. “It’s just really hard to simulate that in practice.”
North Dakota gets to take on that same challenge this week, with Washington playing the role of the home team providing the hostile environment.
Coming off a 35-7 rout of Mississippi Valley State on Aug. 30, the Fighting Hawks take a loose approach to Saturday’s trip to Seattle.
“It’s going to be a fun experience for us,” North Dakota quarterback Nate Ketteringham said Monday. “Coming here [to Washington], we kind of have a little bit different mindset. ‘We can win this one,’ that’s the kind of mindset we’ve got to have.”
Ketteringham was in his redshirt season on a Sacramento State team Washington beat in 2015, 49-0. With the exception of nail-biters against perennial FCS contender Eastern Washington in 2011 and 2014, which Washington won by three and seven points, the Huskies’ average margin of victory against competition from the subdivision is 47.6 points.
Continuing that trend would give Petersen and his staff ample opportunity to give some new playmakers opportunities to step up, particularly with Washington replacing a handful of key performers from a season ago. One of the most prominent, if not one of the few question marks for the Huskies entering 2017 was wide receiver, with Dante Pettis gone for the NFL.
The process of replacing last season’s No. 1 receiving target already began against Auburn. Quarterback Jake Browning found wide receiver Aaron Fuller seven times for 135 yards, and Andre Baccellia four times for 41 yards. Quinton Pounds made a circus catch for a touchdown, and Ty Jones with his three grabs for 77 yards, looked capable of filling the big-play role Pettis manned in 2017.
“We’ve got a handful of those guys we’ve been saying all along, same thing — all these young guys who’ve played some significant football, but not major roles, and we’ve been expecting them to step up,” Petersen said. “And they did, they all took the next step, including Ty.”
Washington can also pepper in a mix of both Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed in the run game, though North Dakota’s yield — after totaling an FCS Week 1-high seven sacks — totaled negative-27 yards.
“[Washington has] a tailback [Gaskin] who’s one of the best in the country,” said North Dakota coach “Bubba” Schweigert in his news conference on Monday. “The offensive line is big and mobile. Good at tight end, good wide receivers. Just no weaknesses offensively.”
North Dakota’s game plan will likely rely less on try to find and exploit a weakness, as Auburn successfully accomplished with its tightened pressure in the red zone. The Tigers’ ability to generate pressure in the red zone against a Washington offensive line without highly touted NFL draft prospect Trey Adams — declared out indefinitely on Tuesday — ultimately made the difference.
Rather, the Fighting Hawks approach Washington as something of a measure stick.
“This is going to be a huge challenge for us,” Schweigert said. “Also, you look at it as a huge opportunity to compete against some of the best players in the country and one of the best teams in the FBS.”