Coach Chris Petersen has said all along that he and his staff are behind the rest of the conference and that they have had to spend a lot of time teaching this team how they want to do things. As he said himself after the game:
...it’s on our shoulders a little bit to kind of earn these guys’ trust and respect as coaches, and give them schemes that are going to work and they can believe in and vice versa, those guys go out there and make plays for us and develop that chemistry over time. And there’s no way to really get that other than just going through the fires with guys and having success.
I think it's safe to say that the chemistry is developing - while it certainly wasn't a perfect performance and there are many things that the film will show that need to be cleaned up, this was the best we've seen the team play so far, and they appear to be building up that trust and that confidence in what this staff wants them to do that provides encouragement that the 2014 Washington Huskies can be a factor in the Pac-12 North. Let's dive into the position groups and look closer at how they did yesterday:
Any concerns from last week about the ability of Cyler Miles to throw downfield should have been answered yesterday. Not only did he have a picture-perfect deep strike to John Ross for a 1-play, 75-yard TD drive - it was thrown right in stride and where only Ross could make the play - he was hitting downfield throws all day as the bubble screen was not a big part of the playbook. Arm strength is and will remain an issue - he had a wounded duck to Jaydon Mickens that was fortunate to be off-target away from any Illini defenders - but he was usually on-target and avoided mistakes. Like any QB his vision is a work-in-progress - he never saw a wide-open Darrell Daniels for a TD early in the game - but the point production under his watch leaves little to complain about. He's also been highly efficient, and he hit on 15-20 passes (75%) with no interceptions. He remains a threat with his feet, though the wear and tear seems to be taking a toll. After a 19 yard scramble for a first down late in the 3rd Quarter he had to come out for a play, and it will bear watching as the Huskies hit the meat of their schedule to see how well he holds up. Grade: A-
The five-headed RB monster still lives - carries were heavily distributed, with Lavon Coleman (18 carries), Dwayne Washington (11 carries) and Jesse Callier (10 carries) leading the way. Deontae Cooper (4 carries) and Shaq Thompson (3 carries) also saw action. Coleman struggled a bit to find running room, but it was a good day for Washington as he showed off his physical style including a nice 12-yard TD run where he trucked one defender and then had the speed to reach the pylon before another defender could shove him out of bounds. It was also the best showing of the year so far for Callier as he displayed improved burst and vision and kept himself in the RB mix. Shaq got another series and came within a stumble of possibly taking another carry to the house. As a group they totaled 189 yards on 46 carries (4.1 ypc) - a workmanlike effort, if lacking in explosive plays. When the offense went highly conservative in the 2nd half, the run game was a mixed-bag in trying to put together extended drives. Grade: B
Ross has clearly established himself as the top offensive threat on the team. His hands have been steady and his speed is more than most defenses can contain. While it's frustrating that he hasn't seen more touches, we should remember that he's not a very physical player, and it's probably for the best if he stays as fresh as possible heading into conference play. Mickens had an encouraging game, leading the way with 5 catches for 75 yards and finding a lot of open space against zone coverage from Illinois. TE Darrell Daniels has started to emerge and had his best game so far with 3 catches for 39 yards including a nice 28-yard gain on a 3rd down play late in the 2nd quarter. Kasen Williams is still struggling to find his niche in the offense - it may well be a case where the coaching staff doesn't want to push things with him physically and let him build himself up for the Stanford game, but it's something to keep an eye on. A special mention should go out to Marvin Hall for a pretty nice pass off a reverse that went for 28 yards to Mickens as the staff continues to mix in some trick plays. Grade: B
Despite the late scratch of RT Ben Riva from the lineup, the OL did a pretty good job of keeping Miles upright and opening holes for the run game, especially in the first half when the offense was mixing in the passing game more. While it appears Colin Tanigawa has a secure hold on the C job, it was interesting to see Sifa Tufunga get a few series at RG in place of James Atoe - clearly there's still some heavy competition going on in practice, and these will be valuable reps for Tufunga heading into next year when the OL will have to replace four starters. With only 1 sack allowed yesterday and just 2 total on the season, it appears that OL coach Chris Strausser is already having an impact in that area, though we'll have to see how they handle teams like Stanford, Oregon and UCLA. Grade: B+
With a senior-laden line and the nation's leading returning sack-man, this was the kind of pass-rush we expected to see this year. DE/Buck Hau'oli Kikaha had himself a huge game with 3 sacks. While he still dropped into underneath zone coverage at times, he had more opportunities to rush the passer and against a less-mobile pocket passer like Wes Lunt, he took full advantage. Andrew Hudson also got into the act with a sack of his own, and while Danny Shelton didn't record a sack he was a big part of the pass rush too, collapsing the interior on a regular basis. Overall they recorded 6 sacks (Jarret Finau and Cory Littleton also had 1 apiece) and many more hurries as they were consistently forcing Lunt to throw before he wanted to. The substitution patterns shifted a bit in this game - the starting DL played more, and rather than the wholesale line changes we saw in prior weeks, there was mostly individual subbing as Taniela Tupou got some reps in place of Evan Hudson and Elijiah Qualls continues to be the main sub for Shelton when he needs a breather. Where the group wasn't as effective was in holding the point of attack vs. the run as Illinois was able to open some nice holes for their run game. But the Illinois gameplan clearly prioritized the passing game, and the effectiveness of the defense in containing it started up front. Grade: A-
We've been on record as saying that Thompson has been a good player but hasn't quite lived up to his considerable hype; yesterday may well have been his coming-out party as he had a pick-6 and a fumble return for a TD, the first time that's happened since Reggie Reser did it back in 1994 vs. Cal. His play-making ability is a huge X-factor for this defense - that pick-6 made it 21-3 with 4 minutes to go in the 1st quarter and made it clear that Illinois was facing a major uphill battle. John Timu added a nice pass break-up two plays before Shaq's interception, and Cory Littleton provided a nice spark on the edge as a pass-rusher. Where this group struggled a bit was plugging gaps and tackling vs. the run game as the Illini backs averaged 4.6 yards. This wasn't a major issue in this game given how quickly the score got out of hand, but they'll need to do a better job in conference play vs. the run. Grade: B+
Overcoming adversity is a big lesson for young players to learn, and coming off a nightmare game last week, with Marcus Peters suspended and Jermaine Kelly out (possibly for the year), and facing another high-flying passing attack, this (mostly) young group had plenty of adversity to face yesterday. While they certainly weren't perfect - witness multiple busted coverages vs. Geronimo Allison that led to two Illinois TD's - they held up reasonably well. Give a lot of credit to a consistent and strong pass rush up front, but also give credit to the guys in the back end that Lunt often needed more time than he had to find open receivers. When he did have time though, he was pretty effective, completing 16-26 for 230 yards and 2 TD's to go with the 1 pick. Sidney Jones in particular stood out as a guy in good position and coverage most of the day. Travell Dixon and Kevin King will need to work out the kinks of what went wrong vs. Allison, but their tough lessons were learned within the context of an easy win. This is still a group that will have the microscope on them and will have to continue growing up in a hurry, but they appeared to take a step forward yesterday. Grade: C+
A bit of a mixed-bag here - Cameron Van Winkle showed off his leg with a 51-yard FG and was 3-3 on the day, Ross continues to terrorize kickoff teams as he averaged 34.5 on two returns (not including the TD return called back on a penalty) and Dante Pettis showed himself to be a dynamic punt returner, averaging 12.0 yards on his 4 returns. They also nearly blocked a PAT and got very close to blocking a punt. On the downside, Durkee had the drop in the end zone that led to a safety and was wobbly all day on his kicks and the kickoff coverage was not that good as Illinois got 26.2 on their returns. More plus than minus overall, but there are still some things to work on. Grade: B
Whether it's the coaches dialing in what they feel are the strengths of this team, the players really starting to understand what's being taught, an expansion of the playbook (or most likely some combination of all those factors), this felt like the most effective job of putting the team in a position to succeed thus far this season. While there were still too many penalties - 8 for 73 yards - they were not as damaging, and bugaboos like the hands to the face problems were gone. Chris Petersen continues to show he likes to mix in a few trick plays each game and it's good to see - not only have they been well-designed (and executed), they are good ways to keep the team engaged and excited. The QB quick-kicks though need to go - they just aren't good choices given field position and expected value.
The offensive gameplan was interesting in that it was a clear counter to last week - while the run game was again emphasized, the passing game mostly avoided the swing passes and bubble screens and was much more focused on hitting plays downfield. Things got quite conservative in the 2nd half with the 38-12 lead going in to the 3rd quarter, but the first half - when combined with what we saw last week - shows an offense that could be among the upper half of the conference and not much of a drop from last year's record-setting group.
Defensively we saw much of what we expected heading into the season with the front four terrorizing a pocket passer and making things easier on a green secondary, and playmakers like Thompson stepping up and generating points on their own. While Kikaha still dropped into coverage on occasion, I'll be OK with it if they mix things up down the road (vs. Stanford say) and he rushes from that look so that offenses are caught off-guard.
We also are seeing a coaching staff that is pragmatic and has a long-term view; the suspension of Peters, holding out Riva to let him heal - these are signs of a staff that believes in what they do and is willing to live with short term consequences for the longer-term benefit of the program. If they've been holding back things in the first three weeks, they've been able to do so while staying undefeated which is the bottom-line. Grade: A-