How about that Husky fans? Thursday night was a HUGE win for the program and for Chris Petersen. Forget for a moment all the distractions and storylines about Steve Sarkisian - the Huskies went into the L.A. Coliseum and faced off against a supremely talented USC team that had, up until last night, played very well on the year (even considering their loss to Stanford) and were heavy favorites over our Dawgs. A terrific Husky defense (that Jon Wilner somehow considered "mediocre") got to show a national audience just how good they were. And despite numerous misfires that could have gone for 6, the Husky offense did just enough to secure a win that this team can savor. As Coach Petersen himself noted, this win was big for the reason that it validates the hard work they've been putting in and gives them confidence that they're on the right path.
This was a team win and everyone involved should feel great about it. But in the interest of diving deeper into the game and seeing what worked and what didn't, let's take a look at each of the position groups:
One of the more impressive aspects of the win was that it came despite a rough game from Jake Browning. There were four different passes on the night he'd like to do-over - passes that, if thrown on-target, would have gone for 6. He forced a ball when he didn't properly read the coverage and got a pick, and there were other off-target throws. He also got away with what could have been a big intentional grounding call. But even considering the misfires and what was statistically a poor game, he never appeared to be overwhelmed by the moment. And when he had to make a play to get a key first down that would allow the Huskies to run out the clock, he executed perfectly. It was also encouraging to see him stepping up in the pocket in the face of pressure. While that still resulted in sacks last night, they were smaller losses than if he'd run backward, and he'll escape some of those sacks in the future and be in a better position to make the defense pay. Grade: C-
Welcome back Myles Gaskin. The true frosh had a breakout game against Sacramento State but then struggled in the last two games. But this game showed again why folks are so excited about him. He showed terrific vision, patience and burst in racking up 134 yards on his 22 carries. He hid behind his big line, waited for a crease to open and was off to the 2nd and 3rd levels. He's not the receiving threat or blocker that Dwayne Washington is, but he provides a great compliment in the run game. Washington struggled after a good game vs. Cal - he lacked the patience Gaskin showed and was unable to find much in the way of running lanes. The good news is the Huskies have the luxury of riding the hot hand, and against USC it was Gaskin. On a night when the passing game struggled, it was the run game that sealed the win. Grade: A-
We've been critical of the WR group this year - they just haven't been doing a good job of creating separation in the passing game and their blocking has been poor. But give credit where it's due - in this one they were finding separation. Dante Pettis and Jaydon Mickens both got themselves open for what should have been touchdowns - Pettis on a fly route, Mickens on a wicked slant and then out route - but Browning was off-target. Mickens still had a productive day as he led the team with 6 catches, none bigger than his slant route for 5 yards and a first down that helped seal the win at the end. Brayden Lenius used all of his 6'5" frame and leaping ability to haul in a terrific sideline catch for 22 yards. Josh Perkins continues to be a favorite target for Browning, and he himself got free deep only to have Jake overthrow and then underthrow him. Perhaps Perk could have shown stronger hands in holding on to the ball on the 2nd one, but credit the Trojan defender for a great play to knock it loose. As it was Perkins still led the way with his 57 yards on 4 catches including a huge TD catch on a double-pass from WR Marvin Hall (his 2nd career passing TD). It wasn't all perfect as there were drops from Mickens and Perkins, but as a group they did a good job of taking advantage of a shaky Trojan secondary. Grade: B
Another game, another lineup for the OL. Jake Eldrenkamp returned to action at LG which shifted Coleman Shelton over to RG, and Andrew Kirkland got the start at RT due to "a couple of...guys [that] got dinged" during practice. Whether it was the lineup changes or something else, this was their best performance of the year - they mostly kept the pocket clean for Browning (2 sacks for 8 yards) and were able to create enough creases and openings on the ground to allow the backs to rush for 149 yards on 31 carries. While they didn't dominate - and the USC DL has had some struggles this year - this was a performance they can build on, and it shows evidence that progress is happening. Grade: B
Great defenses in Husky history have almost always featured a premier defensive tackle in the middle - Elijah Qualls is showing signs he's that next great Husky DT. He was active and disruptive, tallying one sack and helping cause another. But he's not doing it alone - he's getting quality backup support from Greg Gaines and Vita Vea. Having NT depth that goes 3-deep is a luxury most teams don't have and it's allowing Qualls to not get gassed while providing valuable reps for Gaines & Vea in their development. The line did have some struggles vs. the run as they were getting gashed by the big USC OL - this is something they'll have to shore up when Oregon comes to town. Guys like Tani Tupou, Jojo Mathis, Will Dissly will have to provide more support against the run. But you don't get great defensive efforts without the guys in the trenches doing good work. Grade: B, Fletcher Jenkins, Ron Holmes, Steve Emtman and Larry Tripplett come to mind.
It's becoming impossible to ignore Azeem Victor on the field - he's everywhere, flashing a rare combination of sideline-to-sideline speed and physicality. He set the tone for the defense on the first play as he combined with Travis Feeney to drop Cody Kessler for a sack, and he racked up 10 tackles - including 2 TFL - before a questionable targeting penalty resulted in his ejection early in the 4th quarter. His hard-hitting, aggressive play is a double-edged sword - it sets a tone for the defense, but it also leads him into crossing the line into damaging penalties, and his loss for the 1st half against Oregon is a tough blow to the defense. Keishawn Bierria was almost as impressive as he picked up 8 tackles with 2 TFL and a sack. He continues to grow into a quietly productive player. Travis Feeney had his best game of the season as he consistently got heat on Kessler and finished with 2.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL and 7 total tackles. Cory Littleton was nearly as effective from the other edge. The only knock on these guys was the run defense - they weren't always good about keeping leverage on the edges and keeping their gaps plugged. Grade: B+
It probably wasn't a coincidence that the return of Budda Baker from injury resulted in a tough night for Kessler and the USC passing game. Coverage was excellent all night long against some extremely talented receivers, and Budda's range was part of the reason for that success. Darren Gardenhire showed off the skills that allowed him to lead the team in interceptions in fall camp as he perfectly read Kessler's first pass and picked it, and nearly had a 2nd later in the quarter. Sidney Jones got his own pick as he read a screen pass and stepped in front of the throw and later stripped the ball from Juju Smith-Schuster (and recovered by Tupou), and provided excellent coverage all game. was also terrific, often blanketing Adoree Jackson when he was in on offense and providing 1 TFL and one pass break-up. The coverage by these guys (along with a consistent pass rush) kept Kessler off-balance all game and greatly limited what had been a highly effective Trojan passing attack. Grade: A
While not a great performance by this group, they did a very good job of not allowing the terrific athletes from USC to make big plays in the return game. A rare missed FG early in the game by the normally dependable Cameron Van Winkle loomed large as the score was 6-3 in favor of USC going into the half, but the offense and defense bailed him out. Tristan Vizcaino continues to show an improved leg on kickoffs, and the kickoff coverage was solid. Jackson got one return for 29 yards, but they generally kept him in check. Korey Durkee had a good game, booming his kicks for a 47.0 average and with enough height that the coverage units were able to limit Jackson to only 12 yards on his 3 returns. Browning got into the pooch punt act and was effective, dropping both of his kicks inside the USC 10 yard line. Chico McClatcher was held in check, getting only 55 yards on three returns, and Dante Pettis was forced to fair catch 5 of his 6 opportunities (though he did pick up a nice 15 yard return on the 6th). Grade: B-
For all the grieftakes from Husky fans, I thought this was a good gameplan and featured some nice calls. The double-pass was just the kind of opportunistic call you want to see after a turnover and it worked out beautifully. He also wanted to attack a questionable Trojan secondary, and if not for some uncharacteristically poor throws from Browning, they would have succeeded as his receivers were getting open. He and Petersen showed good patience and persistence with the run game and it paid off in the 2nd half as the Huskies scored their 2nd TD off the legs of Gaskin.
There's not much more that can be said about Pete Kwiatkowski and the defensive staff - they have done a fantastic job of replacing five talented defenders gone to the NFL and producing an even better defense this year. They were ready for Adoree Jackson and never let him get going, the coverage did a great job of blanketing USC receivers and they dialed up some timely and effective blitzes and got Kessler rattled. The run defense was a concern, and the Huskies benefited from Clay Helton and Sark not going full-bore with their run game, so that will be an area that will need some attention with Royce Freeman and the Ducks coming to town.
When you see how this team plays hard, plays physical and doesn't seem to get rattled, you have to give credit to the coaching staff for setting that example. This team under Petersen doesn't make nearly as many procedural mistakes as they did under Sark, and the difference was easy to see as they faced off. Nobody seemed to give the Huskies much of a chance in this one as they were 17 point underdogs (even the staff here couldn't find enough reasons to pick the Huskies to win), and yet they not only won, they had opportunities to win by a more comfortable margin. Coach Petersen continues to sport a sterling record after bye weeks (now 20-2), and this is a big win for him and his staff, and you can be sure they'll be emphasizing it in their recruiting efforts around the L.A. area this weekend. Grade: A