Washington’s Dante Pettis scores on a 68-yard punt return with Rutgers’ Michael Cintron (94) and Jawuan Harris (3) trailing during a game Sept. 3 at Husky Stadium. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Washington’s Dante Pettis scores on a 68-yard punt return with Rutgers’ Michael Cintron (94) and Jawuan Harris (3) trailing during a game Sept. 3 at Husky Stadium. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

With highest ranking since 2001, No. 8 Huskies set to face Idaho

Herald news services

SEATTLE — Chris Petersen is at the front of the pack that’s wondering whether Washington is really the No. 8 team in the country.

“Talk to me (after) Game 6, and then maybe we’ll have another conversation,” Petersen said this week. “I didn’t even know that until you told me. That’s how important it is to me. Our fans are really important so however we can play good football to inspire them is awesome. But it’s way too early to be talking about that (rankings) stuff.”

While Petersen would rather the rankings — and the expectations that come with them — would disappear, Washington is again a Top 10 program headed into Saturday’s matchup with Idaho.

The No. 8 ranking for the Huskies (1-0) is their highest since 2001 when they also reached No. 8 in the polls before losing at Oregon State. And this week marks the first of what is expected to be two glorified scrimmages for the Huskies prior to the start of Pac-12 play. After hosting Idaho, the Huskies play Portland State before opening the conference season at Arizona.

That means the ranking isn’t likely to change over the next couple of weeks and the hype surrounding the Huskies is only going to grow.

Idaho (1-0) is beginning a two-week stretch of playing schools from its neighboring state. The Vandals will make the eight-mile trip to Pullman next week to face Washington State.

“They have all the ingredients you need to have a good football team,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. “They’ve got fast receivers, good quarterback, good running back, they do a good job up front on the offensive line … and then defensively they’re good at all three levels.”

Here are five other things to watch as the Vandals and Huskies meet for the first time since 2009:

1. The Huskies will probably run the ball. A lot.

They will likely do this for two reasons. The first is that for all of the good that UW’s offense did last week against Rutgers, it did not run the ball well — Myles Gaskin finished with just 57 yards on 15 carries, and the Huskies averaged only three yards per rush as a team. Of course, the Scarlet Knights tailored their gameplan to stop the run, and the Huskies took advantage of that look by throwing the ball deep.

The second reason is that Idaho simply isn’t very good, so this is an opportune time to install a run-heavy gameplan and give everyone a bunch of repetitions in that area. And if the Huskies jump out to a big lead like they’re expected to, they can pretty much just run the ball the entire second half if they want.

“Every week, you’re going to have something to improve on,” offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “But we definitely want to run the ball better than we did last week.”

2. Idaho has a good punter.

A really good punter, in fact. Austin Rehkow, a senior from Spokane, was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist last season and ranked seventh in the country with an average of 45.9 yards per punt. (You might also recognize his name from the time he made a 67-yard field goal while playing for Central Valley High School.)

It’s worth noting, though, that while Rehkow consistently punted the ball farther last season than nearly everyone else, the Vandals weren’t great at preventing returns — they ranked 70th nationally with an average of 8.58 yards per return allowed, and will be kicking on Saturday to UW junior Dante Pettis, who returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown last week and has for punt-return scores in his career (tied for most in UW history).

Pettis said he hopes Rehkow continues to punt the ball deep.

“Honestly, as a punt returner, we kind of like it when they kick it further, because it just gives us a little more space,” Pettis said. “Hopefully the conditions are good on Saturday and he’ll be able to get a few off pretty far and I’ll have some space.”

Rehkow also handles kickoffs, field goals and extra points for Idaho. He made 23 of 27 field-goal attempts last season with a long of 48, and 41 of his 74 kickoffs last season were touchbacks.

3. Vandal reunion

Petersen knows the Idaho program quite well. He was unbeaten in six games against Idaho while coaching at Boise State. But the series ended on a sour note after Boise State moved to the Mountain West. The two schools have not played since 2010.

“You always enjoy your rivalry games,” Petersen said. “And certainly when it was at Boise that was a big one.”

4. How focused will Idaho be on John Ross?

While offering praise of Ross’ three-touchdown day against Rutgers, Petersen was also sure to note that the Huskies can’t rely solely on their speedy junior receiver. Opponents, Petersen said, will scheme with Ross in mind, and try to eliminate some of the things he does.

“It can’t just be the John Ross show,” Petersen warned.

If Idaho does concentrate more on Ross — or simply avoids defending him with one, isolated defensive back, the way Rutgers did — the Huskies’ other offensive playmakers, like Pettis and Gaskin and Chico McClatcher, could have more freedom to make plays.

“We do have some other firepower,” Petersen said, “and that should help balance things out, I think.”

5. Budda Baker could play some more offense.

Actually, Smith all but said Baker will see the field on that side of the ball again this season. Baker, UW’s star junior free safety, took the first offensive snap of his career against Rutgers, a one-yard loss on a fly sweep handoff.

But Smith thinks he could eventually have a more expansive offensive role than that.

“We’re still working through the kinks of where that is,” Smith said. “Definitely want him to be more than a fly sweep guy only, so we’re working through those kinks.”

The News Tribune’s Christian Caple contributed to this story.

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