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Grading the Game: Illinois Edition

Analyzing the Washington/Illinois game and grading the Huskies by position groups - how well did they play in the 34-24 win over the Illini?

The nation's leading rusher, Bishop Sankey
The nation's leading rusher, Bishop Sankey
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Washington traveled to Big Ten territory to take on a surprising Illinois team at Soldier Field in Chicago.  The Huskies came away with the win, 34-24, but it felt like a game they should have won by a much wider margin.  So how did each position group do?  Let's take a look:

QB: It's fun to see just how well the HUNH suits Keith Price.  The numbers so far are hard to argue with, and he had another highly efficient game yesterday:  28-35 (80%) for 342 yards, 2 TD's and no picks.  At least a couple of the incompletions were throw-aways when nobody was open.  He was accurate, he had good pocket presence most of the night and made good reads.  Which is not to say there isn't room for improvement - there is.  He made the wrong decision on 3rd down right before the half, forcing a low-percentage throw to Kevin Smith in the left corner of the end zone when he had numbers on the right wide side of the field - a simple swing pass to Bishop Sankey very likely would have resulted in a TD and a 14-3 lead instead of 10-3.  I know I'm nit-picking, but if we want the Huskies to win the conference, these are the details that need to improve to get there.  Grade:  A-

RB: After his 208 yard day on the ground, I'm running out of superlatives to describe Sankey.  But this fact pretty much says it all - he's currently the nation's leading rusher.  And it's not just the run game - he picked up another 63 yards and a TD as a receiver including the game's first TD on a beautifully designed and executed swing pass for 31 yards.  It was great to see Jesse Callier have a strong game as he picked up 69 yards on just 6 carries including a 39 yard TD where, despite him getting clearly winded, he still juked his way for the score.  Look for him to get more carries in the coming weeks, as I'm sure the staff would prefer to not have to lean on Sankey for 35 carries on a regular basis.  The only downside to this group were the two costly fumbles by Dwayne Washington that killed drives in the first half.  Grade:  A-

WR/TE: Kevin Smith is quickly establishing himself as a major comeback story and a key piece of this offense as he had another big day, hauling in 5 passes for 104 yards.  Jaydon Mickens also had another good game as the preferred horizontal stretch option, collecting 8 catches to lead the team.  Kasen Williams showed off his terrific hands and body control on his 43 yard reception in the 3rd quarter that led to the final UW TD.  It wasn't all good though - the blocking on the edges wasn't as outstanding as it was vs. Boise State and the bubble screens and rocket plays were not as big a part of the gameplan.  Austin Seferian-Jenkins was mostly a non-factor, though he was a frequent victim of ticky-tack holding calls and a bad no-call when he was held on a seam route.  Grade:  A-

OL: Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the HUNH approach is the offensive line.  Their blocking schemes are simplified, and most passing plays develop quickly enough that they generally only need to keep KP upright for ~3 seconds.  While I think they are showing improvement over last year (not surprising given the returning experience and comebacks of guys like Colin Tanigawa), they are also the beneficiaries of Sankey making them look great by maximizing the results of their blocking and a much improved receiving core giving KP open targets.  It was great to see the team come out to start the 2nd half and march right down the field on the same running play, 7 carries for 75 yards and a TD.  But Illinois made adjustments in the 2nd half and later in the game when Sark was trying to put the game out of reach, the run game was no longer picking up easy 5-10 yard runs on 1st down - instead, 6 of his final 10 carries went for 3 yards or less.  They did a reasonable job in pass-protection, but did surrender 2 sacks and 3 hurries.  They'll need to play better when we get into the thick of conference play.  Grade:  B

DL: It was a mixed-bag for this group.  The pass rush - which had shown glimpses against Boise State - emerged as a real threat, and not just due to great coverage in the secondary.  Josh Shirley had the big stat day with 3 sacks and a hurry, but Cory Littleton and Hau'oli Kikaha were also getting into the backfield.  But Illinois made an obvious adjustment at the half - the Huskies were not keeping contain on their rushes, and Nathan Scheelhaase made them pay on their first drive of the 3rd quarter on designed QB draws up the middle which forced Justin Wilcox to dial back the pressure and go to 3-man, 2-gap fronts.  The run defense wasn't that great either - excluding sacks, Illinois rushed 32 times for 168 yards (5.2 ypc).  They'll need to stiffen up when conference play starts.  Grade:  C+

LB: A mixed-bag here too.  There was some good - John Timu had an active first half before leaving with an injury, Princeton Fuimaono had a number of nice plays and Scott Lawyer added a nice pass-rush element from the edge; but there was also some not-so-good - more missed tackles despite that being a point of emphasis in the bye week.  Travis Feeney was mostly a non-factor, and Shaq Thompson had a mixed day with some nice plays sprinkled in with some missed tackles.  Hopefully the injury to Timu isn't serious and he can return for the Arizona game - Thomas Tutogi is a serviceable backup, but he's not ideal vs. a spread team.  Grade:  B-

Secondary: This group is once again looking like the strength of the defense, similar to last year.  Sure, there was the big 72 yard TD when Ryan Lankford got a step on Greg Ducre, but that's going to happen from time to time when you play man defense, and credit to Scheelhaase for throwing a perfect ball.  When a Sr. QB goes just 9 for 25 (36%) on the day with a pick, you have to tip your hat to the secondary for doing a great job.  That figure wasn't all just drops and a hurried QB - our guys were usually in great position and didn't give Scheelhaase a lot of clear options.  Grade:  A

Special Teams: It was a quietly strong game for Travis Coons as he nailed both FG attempts and averaged nearly 48 yards on his 3 punts with a net of 47 yards per punt.  Coverage was decent on kickoffs and terrific on punts.  Our kickoff returns were mostly good, though Ross had one poor return in the 2nd quarter that hurt.  Ross also needs to do a better job of fielding punts, as he let too many bounce and roll inside the 20, leaving us in poor field position.  Grade:  B-

Coaching: There has been some grumbling about the Huskies not winning by a wider margin and not scoring enough points given how well the offense played in general.  Those are fair points, but let's remember that it's also a credit to the coaching that the offense racked up 615 yards and the defense held Illinois to 327 yards.  You can critique the coaches for the 12 penalties for 104 yards, and there's clearly work to be done in that regard, but I'll also argue that the officiating was far from even between the two teams, and a lot of the calls against us were questionable at best.

All in all, it was a positive game for the staff, but there are still things to be worked on.  The 4th quarter demonstrated a new dilemma for Sark - the pace and style of our HUNH plays to the strengths of our offense, and slowing things down to burn time off the clock might not actually be the best strategy.  While the Huskies were able to withstand a game comeback attempt by the Illini, you have to wonder if keeping the foot firmly on the gas on offense might have been more effective.  Against the high-powered offensive teams in our conference, Sark may have to change his thinking and always keep the pressure on opposing defenses.  And Wilcox will have plenty of mistakes to point out to his crew to work on, including more attention on tackling and wrapping up.  Grade:  B-