The most recent line I have seen for this game says the Huskies are a 9.5 point favorite. Here are a few reasons that line should be somewhere closer to the 20 point range:
Illinois defensive struggles: It’s no secret to anybody who has seen the Illini play that their defense isn’t all that great. They gave up 34 points to Southern Illinois at home, and they surrendered up over 450 yards to Cincinnati in a game where the Bearcats lost their star QB with lots of the game left to go. Considering Washington put up a 38 spot against an above average Boise State defense, this is a very bad matchup for Illinois. Washington’s talent is just on another level. They haven’t faced a back as good as Sankey, a QB as good as Price, or a group of receivers as good as Williams, Smith, Ross, and Mickens. And then, of course there is ASJ, but I’ll get to him later. Also, the Huskies play at an extremely fast rate on offense, and even though Illinois will know that going in, it will be very hard for them to prepare for. Why? Because the Big 10 doesn’t exactly have a ton of hurry-up offenses. I don’t think Illinois is physically ready to play at that pace, and I don’t think their coaches will know how to stop it. Washington could put up fifty plus points in this game.
Washington’s ability to limit big plays: Against the Broncos, the Huskies did not allow one play that went for twenty yards or more. This defense is built on keeping the ball in front of them and not allowing any receivers to get open deep. Joe Southwick averaged under four yards per attempt. The only passes he threw that was over twenty yards? A few incompletions and an interception. The Illinois offense is all about the vertical passing game. I doubt that in this game the Illini will actually try to establish a running game, they haven’t had success on the ground so far (top rusher has 96 yards over two games) and against our linebackers they likely won’t even go there. However, on the flip side Nathan Scheelhaase has averaged 10 yards per attempt, and the Illinois offense is not at all scared of throwing the ball down the field. This will be a big test of both the secondary’s down-the-field coverage and the pass rush. I think in the end, the Washington defense will hold strong against deep passes, maybe make a few interceptions and/or sacks early in the game and force Scheelhaase to play Washington’s game, make him throw lots of short quick routes just like Southwick. I think that Illinois will for sure at least score a few touchdowns because they do have some talent on offense, but in the end they just won’t even be close to keeping up with the Dawgs.
ASJ’s return: You know what’s harder than preparing for a 6’6″, 270-pound preseason All-American tight end? Trying to prepare for him when you haven’t even seen how he could be used in his offense’s new scheme. Because of his suspension, Austin Seferian-Jenkins has no game film from this year. Illinois has no idea what kind of routes he will run, where he will line up, or who is able to cover him. He is the best Tight End in college football and he will add a huge boost to the Huskies offense. I believe he will be the difference between say a 10-14 point victory and a 17-21 point victory. He’s too fast for most linebackers and too big for most corners and even some safeties. Illinois can do one of two things. Prepare for him based on how he was used last year, or don’t really game-plan around him and just treat him like a regular tight end. Either way, they can’t be fully prepared for him, which probably means he and Keith Price are going to have a big day
Maturity: I believe the biggest difference between this year’s team and the rest of Sarkisian’s teams has to be not only talent but maturity. This team is youthful but they are experienced and they should be mature enough to go on the road and handle an opponent like this. Obviously Washington has had road woes in the past. They are 3-8 on the road the last two years, their only wins coming against Cal, Colorado, and Utah in 2011. They’ve played their worst games on the road, last year losing an 18 point lead and the game to WSU, and not even showing up to LSU and Arizona. In 2011 they allowed 65 points to Stanford, got crushed by USC and lost to an okay Oregon State team. Husky Stadium is obviously a huge boost and a very hard environment to play in, but in the past the Dawgs have played like they need that boost to play well. This year is the year where they are talented enough, experienced enough, and mature enough that they do not need to be in Husky Stadium to beat a good team. This game is a test of maturity and if the Huskies walk away with another impressive victory we should be closer to knowing if this year will be a special one.