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Husky Game Awards: UW vs. USC Edition

UW wins as a double-digit underdog, Jaydon Mickens turns in a low-key yet clutch performance, and I'm pretty sure that Travis Feeney just sacked Cody Kessler again.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Game Ball Goes To: Travis Feeney

UW's on-again, off-again starting linebacker since his redshirt freshman year turned in the most productive performance of his career Thursday against his former coaches by tallying seven tackles, 3.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks. He set the tone on the very first play of the game by pressuring Cody Kessler into an Azeem Victor sack, and did a masterful job throughout the contest of setting the edge and funneling USC's ball carriers into the middle of the field. His continued ability to play impressively is going to be that much more important Saturday against Oregon, the first half of which Azeem Victor must sit out after being ejected on a questionable (read: blatantly incorrect) targeting penalty in the fourth quarter against the Trojans.

Who Stepped Up: Myles Gaskin, the offensive line, Azeem Victor, Jaydon Mickens, and the coaching staff

In previous weeks, I have singled out a single player to be honored with the "Who Stepped Up" award. Not this time; there were simply too many members of Washington's team who performed at their highest levels to justify omitting them from a shout-out. In particular:

  • Gaskin rebounded from two sub-par outings against Utah State and Cal by showing outstanding vision and patience in his 22-carry, 134 yard day, including one sublime series in which he ripped off four consecutive carries for 31 yards, 11 yards, seven yards, and a one-yard score that gave the Dawgs an 11-point lead in the early going of the fourth quarter;

  • The offensive line overcame the challenge of adjusting to yet another starting-five by yielding just two sacks and providing the best lanes Washington's running backs have seen this year;

  • Azeem Victor was his usual dominant self with 10 tackles, including 2.0 TFLs, and continues to show why he will be one of the league's most feared linebackers until he heads off to the NFL;

  • Jaydon Mickens didn't light up the stat sheet (six catches for 49 yards), but his playmaking ability meant that four of those catches went for first downs and kept Washington's offense on the field. Up to the USC game, Washington's offense was arguably best characterized by an inability to string together long drives by making key first-down conversions; Mickens' play was a huge reason why that malaise didn't extend against the Trojans; and

  • Washington's coaching staff, in particular defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, deserve heaps of credit for shutting down what had previously been one of the most potent offenses in the country. Heisman hopeful quarterback Cody Kessler had a positively pedestrian evening, averaging just 5.4 yards per attempt on 29 throws (16 completions) and no touchdowns against two interceptions. Virtually nobody expected Washington's 2015 defense to sniff its 2014 vintage, let alone overshadow it; yet thanks to the coaching staff's ability to game plan and put its players in good situations, that's exactly what we find ourselves doing.

Most important play: Sidney Jones' forced fumble

It's become a football cliché that winning the turnover battle is the first step to winning games, and that maxim has never been truer than it was Thursday. After the secondary set the tone by picking off Kessler twice in the first quarter, Sidney Jones created the game's most impactful turnover by punching the ball loose after a JuJu Smith-Schuster reception in the early part of the third quarter that Tani Tupou recovered following an replay review by the officials. The very next play, offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith dialed up a masterful double-pass play that delivered the ball to a wide-open Joshua Perkins in the end zone to give Washington a lead it would never relinquish.

Also, it wasn't the most important play, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to find an way to insert Brayden Lenius' name somewhere in this article.

Most Important Statistic: 1-13 (USC's third-down conversions)

After struggling to stop Cal's prolific passing attack, Washington fans were worried about their young and promising defense's ability to stop Cody Kessler, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson's borderline-elite passing attack. It's not enough to say that Pete Kwiatkowski's defense merely rose to the challenge; rather, they shut down that offense in ways that would be deemed unrealistic if it were to happen in a video game. USC came into Thursday's contest having converted on 42.9 percent of third-down attempts; afterward, they now average conversions just 34.6 percent of the time. Furthermore, UW forced USC into four three-and-outs in 13 possessions, the most such situations the Trojans had been forced into so far this year.

Most Encouraging Takeaway: UW showing an ability to win a game it arguably shouldn't have

Imagine, if you will, that you hear an unnamed, unranked team is playing on the road against the No. 17 team in the country as a 17-point underdog. Furthermore, you learn that the visiting team's true freshman quarterback will complete just 50 percent of his passes for 137 yards, average just 4.3 yards per attempt, and throw one pick against zero touchdowns. Such an effort would seem to doom the unranked visitors to a loss, but that's the exact stat line that Jake Browning turned in Thursday in a winning effort. In a perverse way, the effect of playing so poorly might be a positive one for Jake: He now has concrete evidence before him that he doesn't need to go out and win games for the Huskies; rather, he simply needs to trust his defense and not make boneheaded mistakes that lose games. In the years ahead, Jake will likely mature into the kind of player Chris Petersen can trust to engineer an effective two-minute drill; for now, it's a very good thing for the Husky players to see that there are other ways for them to win games.

Biggest Source of Frustration: USC's 5.5 yards per carry

For much of Thursday's game, the Trojans ran the ball at will against Washington's defense, earning 215 yards on 39 carries (not including yards taken away by sacks). In particular, Tre Madden (17 attempts for 120 yards) and Ronald Jones II (eight rushes for 65 yards and a touchdown) had great days pounding the rock, and if Clay Helton and Steve Sarkisian had stuck with calling those sorts of plays, there's a good chance Husky fans would be lamenting another Pac-12 loss today rather than celebrating the program's first road win over a ranked opponent since 2010. Shoring up the below-average run defense has to be Kwiatkowski's No. 1 priority going into Saturday's game against the Ducks, especially considering that Royce Freeman is by far Oregon's biggest and most effective weapon at the moment, and that Azeem Victor will be criminally absent for the game's first half.