In his first game as coach of Oregon, Chip Kelly suffered a memorable 19-8 loss to Boise State. In his debut with LSU, Les Miles squeezed out a 35-31 win at Arizona State (a 7-5 team under Dirk Koetter). Closer to home, Don James lost his first game with the Huskies 35-12 to Arizona State. In their 1990 season the Huskies managed meager wins over San Jose State (20-17) and Purdue (20-14) to start the year before breaking out with the infamous "All I saw was purple" shellacking of USC.
I say this as much to remind myself as to remind all of you not to make too much of one game, especially the first game of the year and the first game under an almost entirely new coaching staff. As well, while the expectations are that Hawaii is not much better this year than they were last year (1-11), we can't discount the possibility they have improved significantly. Having RB Joey Iosefa healthy certainly helps. That said, there were some troubling things on display in this game that bear watching as we move forward. Let's arbitrarily break things down by position group and assess what we saw:
QB: It was a tale of two halves for rookie starter Jeff Lindquist. In the first half he appeared poised and on target, going 7-10 for 131 yards and a TD; two of those incompletions were drops by the receivers. The 91 yard pitch & catch to John Ross was a thing of beauty, hitting him perfectly in stride. In the 2nd half, things started to go downhill and it appeared that he lost confidence and poise and his accuracy completely deserted him. Some of his easier throws were tipped or knocked down at the line and his longer throws were sailing on him. On the plus side, his running is a positive and something that can be exploited, and while he appeared rattled, he still played hard - his recovery of a fumble by Lavon Coleman early in the 4th quarter was a heads-up play and prevented what could have been a game-changing turnover. Overall however, this was a disappointing debut by Lindquist and it opens the door wide-open for Cyler Miles to claim the starting job. Grade: D
RB: The overall numbers weren't great; if you only looked at the stat sheet, you might be disappointed in the running backs. But it wasn't all the backs - there wasn't a lot of running room on the night. And when it was most needed, Coleman stepped up and delivered, showing the kind of power and balance that has had observers excited about his potential as he was able to convert multiple first downs to eat up the clock and allow the Huskies to take the victory formation. Washington ran hard even if his numbers don't impress, but couldn't find much daylight to exploit his speed. He did have a troubling drop in the first half that helped kill a drive and didn't help his cause as being an every-down back. Grade: B-
WR: It was the John Ross show on offense as he accounted for both Husky touchdowns - one a reverse that exploited the aggressive overplay of the Hawaii defense, the other a fly pattern that showcased his remarkable speed as he blew past two defenders to catch a perfectly thrown deep ball in stride that resulted in the 2nd longest play in Husky history (91 yards). On the whole though the receivers didn't have a lot of opportunities to shine as the passing game sputtered. Jaydon Mickens had a bad drop that killed Washington's first drive of the game and only ended up with one catch. Michael Hartvigson had the only catch for the TE group, a nice 20 yarder that showed off his size and hands. Kasen Williams was mostly ineffective; a tunnel screen only went for 2 yards when the pass was tipped and didn't arrive on time, and his 3 catches totaled only 11 yards. Grade: C
OL: A big reason why many have been bullish on the Huskies this year despite the losses of Keith Price, Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins has been the tremendous experience returning on the offensive line. It was expected that they would build on their run-blocking success and show improvement in pass-protection to help ease the transition to new starters at QB and RB. But that's not what we saw vs. a Hawaii team that last year ranked 105th in rushing defense. Instead, the line struggled to open holes for the run game, and while Lindquist was sacked only once, they allowed several passes to get tipped at the line and they often had a rolling pocket to buy Linquist time. It's hard to know how much the absence of Ben Riva factored into things as Coleman Shelton got his first career start, and you have to wonder about Colin Tanigawa starting ahead of Mike Criste at C and James Atoe starting at RG in place of Tanigawa. As with most position groups on this team, it would appear that starting jobs are far from settled and opportunities are wide open for those in the depth. The play of the OL will have to improve significantly if the Huskies are to match last year's win total. Grade: D
DL: Given the liberal amount of substitutions taking place last night it's hard to fairly grade this group as a whole. When Danny Shelton, Andrew Hudson, Evan Hudson and Hau'oli Kikaha were out there things were tough on the Hawaii offense. While they weren't themselves blameless, a good number of the successful runs against the 2nd stringers as the coaching staff worked hard to keep the 1st string from getting worn out. Shelton led all tacklers with 12 stops and notched a career-high 2 sacks and 3 tackles-for-loss. Andrew Hudson was also active with 9 tackles. Kikaha had an early sack and was getting into the backfield, but Hawaii did a good job of not letting him dominate the game. Elijiah Qualls showed his potential with an impressive TFL in the 2nd quarter. On the whole though the DL was not controlling the line enough and allowing Iosefa to get past the LOS cleanly too often. They did a good job of preventing Hawaii QB Ikaika Woolsey from breaking contain and burning them with long scrambles and managed 3 sacks, but it still felt like they should have been able to generate more pressure. Grade: B-
LB: Without being able to really break down the film it's hard to determine exactly how much credit and blame to assign the LB, but the view from the couch (and confirming via the stat sheet) suggests this wasn't the best game from what should be one of the best units in the conference. They were often struggling to fit the gaps vs. the Hawaii run game early and allowed a lot of easy completions underneath. John Timu had the best game, notching 9 tackles and a pass break-up. Shaq Thompson was mostly a non-factor however, as was new starter Keishawn Bierria. Things improved in the 2nd half, but it was hard not to think they weren't playing at their best. Grade: C
DB: If we were just grading Marcus Peters, this would be an 'A'. He picked right up from where he left off in 2013, playing with aggression and confidence and right on the line of the rules - against a more strict group of officials he might have had 2-3 more damaging penalties. As it was however he played a great game despite being tested frequently in the pass game, and he notched some critical open field tackles against the run. Jermaine Kelly had his struggles, often being asked to play well off the ball and giving up a lot of underneath routes. Budda Baker was active, and while he wasn't perfect he showed the potential that has everyone excited. Kevin King got the surprise start over Brandon Beaver, and while he wasn't a big factor in the passing game he did help clean up the mess on some of Iosefa's longer runs. They were unable to generate any turnovers, though Peters came very close. Grade: B-
Special Teams: This was a quietly solid game, though there's room for improvement. Cameron Van Winkle nailed what proved to be the difference-maker with his 36-yard FG late in the 2nd quarter. The coverage units were solid, giving up a 40-yard kickoff return to open the game but otherwise not allowing much. Korey Durkee was steady and somehow avoided disaster when he dropped a snap in the end zone and managed to get a kick away, and averaged 42.5 on 8 punts and allowed just 8 yards on 2 returns. The Huskies themselves very nearly notched their own punt block, but somehow - despite being nearly surrounded - Scott Harding got the punt off. Jaydon Mickens was shaky returning punts, showing questionable hands, but John Ross remains a huge threat on kickoff returns. He picked up 82 yards on 3 returns. Tristan Vizcaino had a nice debut, frequently putting kickoffs right at the goal line. Grade: B
Coaching: Chris Petersen is without question a steady presence on the sidelines, and despite the tense nature of the game he remained poised. But you have to wonder where the fire was with his team - this was a group that just didn't look fired-up, and they looked rattled, especially in the 2nd half as the offense struggled mightily. It's troubling to note how poor the offense looked in the 2nd half. Despite weathering the early storm in the 1st half and responding with 17 straight points to claim momentum going into the half, that momentum was not sustained and the offense couldn't do anything until the final drive.
The offense was a mixed-bag at best, lacking a defining identity or trait. They couldn't seem to lean on the run game, and the passing game was out of sorts. Even when OC Jonathan Smith tried to dial up some easier plays for Lindquist, they were blown up by drops or tips at the LOS. The reverse was a good call against Hawaii's over-pursuit, and I loved the fly pattern to John Ross following a critical 4th down stop by the defense as Smith went for the jugular. But he had real difficulty finding any kind of rhythm.
Defensively it was troubling to see the difficulty they had slowing down the Hawaii run game in the 1st half. The number of plays they allowed in the 1st half along with the humidity contributed to a liberal amount of substitution, and it was clear the difference in effectiveness between the 1st & 2nd strings. I wasn't thrilled at soft cushion being played in the secondary - it allowed Woolsey a lot of easy completions underneath to build his confidence. I get the general idea - with a front four that should be able to generate a lot of pass rush and a very green secondary, it's not a bad idea to play more zone concepts or play off the ball to not allow easy passes deep, but when the rush wasn't getting there in time it made things easy on the Hawaii passing game. Things tightened up in the 2nd half, but it's a philosophy that bears watching. One of the biggest positives of the Wilcox staff IMO was the confidence he displayed in his secondary to play aggressive man defense. Kwiatkowksi - at least in game 1 - doesn't appear to share that level of aggressive play.
With such a narrow win in a game where they hold such a significant talent advantage you have to pin some of the blame on the coaching staff. I'm sure they will have better games, but this wasn't the performance we expected to see. Grade: D+