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Grading the Game: Washington vs. Stanford

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Washington had their first real test of the year vs. Stanford, and despite some big plays on defense and some timely penalties against the Cardinal, the Huskies were unable to steal the win. Some curious coaching decisions and an anemic offense doomed their cause.

CB Marcus Peters and the defense did their best to keep the Huskies in the game
CB Marcus Peters and the defense did their best to keep the Huskies in the game
Steve Dykes

Grading these games is always a tricky task, especially the attempt to break them down by position group.  Football is a team sport and so much of what happens does not occur in a vacuum, i.e. it can be difficult to adequately represent where things went right and where they went wrong.  As well, you have to take into account the quality of the opposition, and that can be tricky too, especially earlier in the season when quality is harder to gauge.  Still, this is our chance to evaluate what we saw, and more than anything it's an exercise in getting a discussion going.  Let's dive in:

QB:

Case in point - how much blame do we put on Cyler Miles for the anemic output on offense?  How much do we put on the OL and the RB's, and how much on the coaches?  How much credit do we give Stanford's defense?  From my vantage point, this was a poor game by Miles.  I don't think anyone can dispute that.  He was skittish in the face of pressure, he missed seeing (or pulling the trigger) on open receivers, he was inaccurate, he made mental errors (his mismanagement of the clock at the end of the game) and he was rarely a threat with his feet on the read-option.  The one positive you can say is that he didn't turn the ball over.  Now that said, there's also no question his pass-blocking was terrible, and you can also question the play-calling - is this offense as designed one that plays to his strengths?  Has he been coached away from turnovers to such an extent that he's too afraid to throw downfield?  Whatever the other co-factors, this was just a bad game from Miles, and until this staff can figure out a way to get more effective QB play, this team is going to struggle offensively.  I was also disappointed in the lack of creativity in playing off the Jeff Lindquist wrinkle, and Lindquist badly misfired on his one throw.  Grade:  D

RB:

Lavon Coleman bounced-back from two subpar games to be one of the only semi-positive areas on offense.  He wasn't great, but he did manage to provide a few nice runs early, and he finished with 58 yards on 14 carries.  However Stanford tightened up their run defense in the 2nd half and the Huskies were unable to get much going in that area.  Dwayne Washington got the start, but really struggled to find - or create - any running room, and we have yet to see him utilize his speed.  This was a game that really highlighted how much the Huskies miss having a guy like Bishop Sankey or Chris Polk - they needed a back that could maximize whatever room the OL could provide, break some tackles and make some guys miss.  Both Coleman & Washington have shown flashes this year they can do that, but not with any consistency.  As for the Shaq Thompson experiment - OC Jonathan Smith needs to start mixing things up, because teams are noticing that every time he's in the game at RB it's going to be a handoff to him.  Grade:  C

WR/TE:

It's becoming clear there's a disconnect between Miles and Kasen Williams - even with the staff trying to jump start that connection early in the game, it just wasn't - and isn't - clicking.  For a team that lost some big playmakers on offense to get so little out of Kasen so far this year is very troubling.  Jaydon Mickens is clearly the favored target for Miles, and while he's a valuable player, he can't do it all.  He is what he is - a quick guy that can get some nice yardage on the bubble screen if the ball is delivered on time and in stride, and he can find seams in the secondary if the QB has time.  John Ross is the true game-breaker, but the Huskies are struggling to get the ball in his hands.  Given the issues Miles has with bubble screens, the staff needs to figure out other ways of getting Ross involved.  DiAndre Campbell continues to be a pleasant surprise with 3 receptions that were all key 1st down conversions to keep drives going.  Unfortunately the TE's are almost completely invisible so far - the staff needs to figure out a way to get them involved.  Darrell Daniels is a physical mismatch that is going to waste.  Grade:  C

OL:

With a veteran crew with tremendous experience returning, a history of above-average run blocking and a new coach with a great pedigree, it was easy to figure that the 2014 Husky offense would be able to lean on this group to help break in a new QB and RB.  That has not been the case, and it's one of the major disappointments so far this year.  It's probably unfair to pin most of it on the injury to Ben Riva, but you have to wonder how much the chemistry of this unit has been thrown off by OL coach Chris Strausser's decision to replace C Mike Criste with Colin Tanigawa and to start James Atoe at RG instead.  Whatever the case, the pass blocking has been just as much a problem as it was the last few years, and the run blocking seems to have taken a step back.  While you have to put some of the blame for the sacks on Miles and some poor decisions of when (and where) to scramble, and you have to imagine that a back like Polk or Sankey would make this group look better, the bottom line is they were overmatched yesterday, and were unable to provide consistent push for the run game or keep Miles from getting flushed (or sacked) with far too much frequency to allow the passing game to take shots down the field.  Grade:  D-

DL:

Facing what was (by far) the best OL so far on the season, it's no surprise that the DL was unable to replicate the torrid play we'd seen in the first four games which had Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikaha leading the nation in sacks.  They were unable to get consistent pressure on Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan, and when they did get in his face they frequently lost contain.  It's not that they were bad by any means - they helped keep the Stanford run game from controlling the game, and they did get some pressure on Hogan (including a strip-sack by Kikaha in the 3rd quarter that ended a Cardinal drive).  They held their own against a good, very talented OL.  But they also didn't dominate - not that we necessarily should have expected them to do so, merely that we can probably ratchet back (slightly) our expectations for them moving forward.  Grade:  B

LB:

This area will be a little tricky to grade simply because the best player - Shaq Thompson - wasn't strictly playing LB yesterday.  Due to Kevin King's illness that rendered him unable to play, the staff experimented with some looks that had Thompson playing S.  For the purposes of this exercise I'll count him among the LB's, since it appears the majority of his snaps came closer to the LOS (it was admittedly kind of hard to read the purple numbers against the black jerseys from up in the stands).  Thompson had a huge game, forcing two fumbles and taking one of them to the house to tie the game up shortly before the half (though it was thisclose to the runner being ruled down).  John Timu led the way with 11 tackles, but it will be the drop of a certain pick-6 that will linger with him - convert that and who knows how the complexion of the game might have changed?  Travis Feeney was 2nd with 8 tackles and Cory Littleton came off the bench to chip in 6 more.  Where they fell short was diagnosing and taking good angles on the trick plays with Ty Montgomery - they were focused on North/South and the Cardinal were able to find some room on the edges.  Grade:  A-

Secondary:

A mixed-bag - they managed to keep Montgomery from burning them long, and Marcus Peters had a beautiful leaping pick of an underthrown Hogan pass.  Naijiel Hale showed some moxie with a key early break-up, and Trevor Walker was active with 5 tackles.  But there were a number of coverage breakdowns with wide-open receivers, and this group continues to struggle with zone coverage in knowing when to aggressive within their zones.  I think they're showing signs of getting better, and the growing pains for Hale, Sidney Jones, Budda Baker, Walker & King should pay off down the road.  Grade:  C+

Special Teams:

A lot of us were worried coming into the season about the punting situation - Travis Coons had been a consistent and clutch performer, and Korey Durkee had reportedly really struggled with consistency and getting his kicks away quickly.  Fast-forward 5 weeks and those concerns have been put to rest.  Durkee was the MVP of the game yesterday as he did a terrific job of preventing Montgomery from being a factor as a punt returner.  He averaged 51.7 yards on his 7 punts, dropping 3 of them inside the 20 and allowing only 1 return (for just 2 yards).  Unfortunately the rest of the special teams was not so great - K Cameron Van Winkle (ed. note - the article when first published mistakenly identified Tristan Vizcaino as the kicker) was unable to kick the ball away from Montgomery on the opening kickoff and the coverage unit did a poor job holding their lanes and nearly allowed a repeat of last year as he sprinted 62 yards.  Ross had yet another kickoff return TD called back, and when Chris Petersen decided to have Stanford re-kick late in the game instead of take the out of bounds penalty at the 35, the kick return blocking was terrible and Ross was dropped for just a 13 yard return.  I won't pin the failed fake punt on the players - it was just a poor call - but the botched XP on the first TD changed the nature of the game and might have had an impact on some of our late-game decisions.  Grade:  B-

Coaching:

Give Petersen credit - he'll own up to his mistakes, or at the very least he'll take the blame and shield his players.  His decision to call for a fake on 4th and 9 at the UW 47 in a tie ball-game, and to use a fake that had Shaq lining up under center (thus tipping off the Stanford players that something was up) was not a smart call.  That was the wrong fake play in that situation, and given the nature of the game it was probably just the wrong decision period.  I was less critical of the decision to make Stanford re-kick later the quarter - giving Ross a chance to bust off another TD was entirely understandable, and the resulting terrible run-back was a low-probability result.  Obviously that one looked bad in hindsight, but I completely understood and agreed with the rationale.

The defense held up reasonably well, and you have to give some credit to this coaching staff for their emphasis on creating turnovers - the attention sure appears to be paying off.  While Pete Kwiatkowski didn't go jumbo the way Justin Wilcox did (if Elijah Qualls lined up alongside Shelton, I missed it), he certainly appeared to have them in positions to succeed.  I think there's still a lot of room for improvement in our zone drops, and our blitz packages have not been very effective, but the defense was not the problem yesterday.

Which brings us to the big issue - what to do about the offense.  Smith is really struggling to find an identity for this group and figure out how to best utilize his QB.  He's also struggling to develop his QB into a reliable passer.  How much of this is Smith?  How much of it is the QB group failing to meet expectations?  How much is it due to the limitations of the OL, or the lack of a premier RB?  Whatever the case, the offense is a mess.  Granted, Stanford boasts a terrific defense that currently ranks as the best in the game.  But even so, that doesn't alone excuse just 1 TD, 179 yards and a pathetic 2.2 yards/play.

This isn't a terrible loss on the surface of things.  Stanford is a good team, and despite a complete lack of an offensive attack they were in the game until the very end.  But this was also likely the best chance for the Huskies to snatch a win against a top-tier Pac-12 team - they just seem to match up better with the Cardinal than teams like Oregon or UCLA.  It was a missed opportunity, and one that could haunt them at the end of the season.  Grade:  C-