Expectations are a funny thing. They are a close cousin (or variation if you like) of opinions, and you know the old saying about opinions and a-holes: everyone has one. Unlike something concrete and universal, like wins and losses, meeting expectations is something that varies (sometimes wildly) from person to person. Such is the case with the Huskies win over Cal Friday night. It was a win, which is always good. It was ugly, a description I think most people would agree with. Was it satisfying? That's where opinions really start to vary.
I'm of two minds on this; on the one hand, getting a win on the road - no matter how it looked - was important. The record of this team under Sark on the road was becoming a real issue among fans, so breaking a 6-game losing streak (7 if you count the Alamo Bowl) was important from a psychological perspective. While I can't know for sure just how much it was an issue in the locker room, I suspect the players were quite aware and were happy to break that streak. Hopefully it allows them to carry more confidence on the road moving forward; they should steamroll Colorado in Boulder regardless, but they'll need some confidence to ensure the zombie Cougars don't steal a win in their Apple Cup bowl game substitute.
On the other hand, Cal looked terrible. This was a team at least as bad off in terms of injuries as the Huskies, if not more so, and the way they played they would have been clown-stomped by a good team playing well. The fact the Dawgs were trailing for significant portions of the game and had to white-knuckle their way to a win doesn't exactly inspire confidence about the quality of this team. So if some of my grades seem a little low, keep that in mind. On to the grades!
QB: In what has become the new normal, Keith Price was adequate at best. He had 2 critical turnovers - one (an interception) near the goal line that killed what should have been a scoring drive, and another (a fumble) that happened on first down at the Cal 24 after a terrific punt return by Cody Bruns that should have given the UW momentum towards building on a 14-13 lead. He missed an open Kasen Williams on the first play of the game that should have gone for long yardage or a TD and he continued to miss open receivers when scrambling and threw the ball away instead. On the other hand, he made some clutch, smart throws to Austin Seferian-Jenkins, recognizing mismatches and letting the big fellow make key plays, and he was under typical duress, being sacked 3 times and getting flushed from the pocket several more times. Grade: C
RB: True sophomore Bishop Sankey continues to impress. He showed really good vision, sharp cuts and nice quickness as he tallied a career-high 189 yards on 29 carries. He was a force for much of the game, taking moderate creases and turning them into big upfield gains. He doesn't possess the game-breaking speed of a DAT, nor is he quite as strong in breaking tackles as was Chris Polk, but he's a real weapon. He'll need to improve his hands and blocking before he's quite in Polk's league, but he's a back you can feature and win with. Kendyl Taylor was used sparingly and did OK, but you can see the difference between him and Sankey. Grade: A
WR/TE: The receivers didn't distinguish themselves in this one. Kasen Williams made a few nice plays, and would have had a pretty good game in terms of production had Price not overthrown him on an open downfield play that should have gone for big yardage, but the rest of the crew was basically MIA, including a flat-out drop by Jaydon Mickens when he had 2-3 steps on the Cal secondary on a play where he probably scores. The throw was right there, but Mickens appeared to get too excited and forgot the first rule of a wide receiver - catch the ball before anything else. What saves this grade from being a bad one is the huge game by ASJ - even with a bum wheel, he was unstoppable out there. He often found himself matched-up with a 5'11" CB, and give Price credit for recognizing those mismatches and making the right throws to allow ASJ to make the play on the ball. We already know he's got terrific hands, and he also showed off his toughness early in the game as he run over a Cal defender on the sideline after one of his 8 catches for 152 yards. Evan Hudson also showed off nice hands, hauling in a nice 11 yard gain early in the game. Grade: B
OL: Another Jekyll/Hyde performance by the big uglies up front. In the run game, they were a force, opening up nice creases and holes for Sankey. In pass-protection, they were pretty bad, allowing 3 sacks and countless more hurries. It should be noted that even in run-blocking, they still are more "good" than "great" - on both of the 4th and 1 runs, they got blown up at the point of attack. Dexter Charles was incorrectly identified as the culprit on the first one - it was actually Ben Riva getting pancaked back into the pulling Charles that killed that play. Considering that Cal was down some of their starting DL, this wasn't the best of performances by this group. Grade: C+
DL: This group was down a few players by the end of the game as Talia Crichton, Pio Vatuvei and Josh Shirley all got hurt (though I think Shirley played quite a bit). The results were about like they've been most of the season; Danny Shelton did a pretty good job in the middle, but the ends were not very stout vs. the run nor did they generate much pass rush, even against a Cal OL that is arguable the worst in the country in pass-protection. It should also be noted that as talented as Shelton is, he plays like a knucklehead too often, and the take-down of Zach Maynard that injured his leg was borderline dirty. One of the big tests of Tosh as a position coach will be if he can get Shelton to focus his aggression in a more productive manner and turn him into a 1st round talent. Grade: D+
LB: It can be tough sometimes to assess who bears more blame for the Dawgs' difficulties vs. the run - is it the DL which can't control the LOS, or is it LB's that miss (or can't hold) their gap responsibilities? Either way, the issues this defense is having vs. the run is a real concern. I think John Timu is playing reasonably well, but he still gets out of position at times. Fuimaono is a prime candidate to get bumped from the lineup IMO, but I'd guess he was benefiting from Travis Feeney still feeling the effects of being ill. I'd like to see more Thomas Tutogi, but maybe he's just not getting it done in practice. Overall, not a great showing when you consider the yardage allowed. Grade: C-
Secondary: Still the unquestioned strength of this defense. Cal's young WR's made some terrific catches, otherwise the Bear passing numbers would be pretty ugly. Shaq Thompson drove that dagger a little further into the backs of Bear fans with his best game of the year, but just about everyone got into the action as Sean Parker had a forced-fumble and both Justin Glenn and Marcus Peters recovered fumbles. Hopefully Desmond Trufant is back next week, but even without him they were able to keep Cal from doing too much damage through the air. Grade: A-
Special Teams: One of the better games for this unit so far this year. Travis Coons has quietly turned into a pretty good, dependable punter despite doing double-duty as the placekicker. Cody Bruns had another really nice punt return, an unexpected bonus for a guy that is back there because of his sure hands. Kevin Smith and Mickens did fine in kickoff returns, and the coverage units were reasonably good. Grade: A-
Coaching: This is a tough one to grade. Obviously it should be acknowledged that the team got the road monkey off their backs, at least temporarily. And there is certainly some praise for the way this team under Sark has become money in close games. The problem is it shouldn't have been a close game in the first place, and a lot of that has to go on to the staff. While we know that the Pac-12 is calling more penalties than anyone else, this team is still too sloppy out there, making too many bonehead plays, and that has to come back to coaching emphasis. And as much as I admire Sark's playbook creativity, and as much as I've defended his play-calling and balance, this was a game where I was screaming at the TV at his calls. The ease with which the Dawgs were running on Cal and getting easy 1st downs just begged for a gameplan that kept running the ball until the Bears proved they could stop it. Instead, Sark got cute too many times and justified the criticism many have of him being a guy that favors the passing game and not being dedicated enough to the run. The defense had a "good Holt" kind of game: surrendering a lot of yards, not getting off the field enough on 3rd downs (and surrendering a nauseating conversion on 3rd and 23 for a 64 yard rush (plus 10 more penalty yards for an unnecessary horse-collar tackle at the end) - but still holding the Bears to just 13 points. Grade: C-