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The Washington Huskies Upset of the USC Trojans Changes the Narrative

Many troublesome story lines came to an end in one glorious upset in Los Angeles.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody believed it could happen.  The Huskies had not won a road game over a ranked team - ironically, also against USC - since 2010.   The Huskies hadn't beaten a ranked team at all since UW beat Boise State in the opening of the new Husky Stadium.  Heck, Chris Petersen had not notched a win against a winning FBS team since he took over the program.

But, Chris Petersen had also never lost a game following a BYE week.  Never.  Not once.

The culmination of a myriad of lines of frustration that have been plaguing Husky coaches, Husky players, and Husky fans terminated in one glorious moment when the Huskies upset Steve Sarkisian and his USC Trojans 17-12 in the LA Coliseum on Thursday night.  Chris Petersen got his signature win.  Husky Fans got their upset.  The Husky players got their validation.  Steve Sarkisian got his comeuppance.

The dam finally gave way to the pressure building up behind it and an illustrious flood of frustration, anxiety and uncertainty burst out all over the Trojans.

In the process, the elusive answer to the question that Husky fans have been querying for the past two years finally was answered.  The Huskies have an identity.  They are a nameless, faceless pack of wild dawgs that will take blow after blow, hit after hit, and shot after shot but just keep on coming.  They are gritty and relentless.  They are tough in the face of a challenge and they do not wilt when confronted with adversity.  They do not back away from calamity.  This is a team that is intransigent in a way that they never were under Steve Sarkisian and is as unremitting as any team that we have seen going all the way back into the Don James era.

The installation of this identity has been in motion since Chris Petersen and his staff arrived at Montlake two years ago.  But it was opaque to the fanbase.  Even as we heard confirming statements from UW alums like Hau'oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton, the fans chaffed.  Even while current players like Joe Mathis, Elijah Qualls and Mickens have publicly commented on the personal developmental journeys that this staff has put them through, the fans wavered.  The results on the field weren't there.  Leads were squandered.  Mistakes were made.  Losses mounted.

Thursday night was a milestone.  It marked in front of a national audience the legitimacy of the Chris Petersen approach and the materialization of a new era for UW football.  Before the game, there were real questions as to whether Petersen's "Built for Life" approach could translate.  Today, we have come to realize that the only thing holding it back is the collective experience of a young roster fighting their asses off to succeed.

This is not yet a good team.  Nobody is calling them a playoff contender.  They may still struggle to get bowl eligible.  They will be underdogs next week versus Oregon. But growth happened last night.   Young linemen were given chances to run block.  A young QB was given chances to pass deep.  The team had to cope with disappointment on not scoring off of five penalties and two first quarter turnovers.  The defense had to make one last stop.  Jake Browning had to make one last first down pass.

And, fittingly, Jaydon Mickens caught it.

Those are all data points that will become part of the collective playing experience of a set of young players.  Even in their failure, they hold tremendous value for a developing team.  To find a way to win in spite of those gaffes adds a new dimension to the team's psyche.  It validates that there can be payoff to perseverance.  This, in turn, will do nothing but empower this team in the weeks ahead.

The narrative for Husky football under Chris Petersen has now changed. It's no longer an "if" statement, but a "when".

Gekko's Dots

  • As much as the upset was attention-grabbing, the real impact of this game will be felt by Steve Sarkisian when his performance evaluation comes at the end of the season.  We mentioned that Sark had a short leash already thanks to his drunken rant at a USC boosters rally to start the season.  Now with two "upset" losses in his first five games, it is increasingly likely that this will be Sark's last year in LA.  There is evidence that the pressure is getting to him even from last night.  For example, I don't ever quite recall seeing anything like this when he coached UW:

  • For all the love that Adoree Jackson got from the telecasters, I don't recall too many plaudits being handed to the man who completely shut him down.  The Huskies handled the three-way superstar simply by assigning 6'3" cornerback Kevin King as his man-on-man shadow for most of his offensive appearances.  King, who impressed everybody with his remarkable athletic showing at the Husky combine, is bigger than Jackson and demonstrated more than ample athleticism to stay with the explosive USC star.  It was an unheralded but impressive performance.

  • ESPN would have you believe that the USC offense is some kind of train wreck.  But this Trojan offense, which already had put up 31 points on a stout Stanford defense, came into this one fifth in the nation in passing  yards per play and 13th in rushing yards per play.  They were averaging 495 yards per game.  Even more impressively, Football Outsiders measured USC as the second most efficient team in the nation per their "Game Efficiency" mark (which focuses only on non-garbage time plays).  UW's D completely shut that team down.  The flying Huskies limited the Trojans to just 394 yards of offense for the game and less than six yards per pass attempt.

  • The game was remarkably even from a stats perspective in just about every category:
    Total Yards:  UW 299, USC 346
    Yards Per Pass Attempt:  UW 5.0, USC 5.4
    First Downs Rushing:  UW 9, USC 9
    First Downs Passing:  UW 7, USC 8
    Total Plays:  UW 69, USC 68
    Penalties:  UW 7-60, USC 8-62
    Avg Net Punt:  UW 41.1, USC 41.2
    Turnovers:  UW 2, USC 3

    There were just a few differences that decided the game.  The first was that UW racked up five sacks and a dozen or so QB hits while USC had just two sacks for a measly eight lost yards.  Third down conversions were 6-17 for UW but just 1-13 for USC.  Oh, and UW was playing a true freshman QB while USC started a Heisman contending senior.

  • I wonder if Max Browne sat on the sideline with his clipboard gloriously cradled in his arms and watched Jake Browning thinking, "Yeah, that could've been me."

  • Like many others have acknowledged, I can't complain about Jonathan Smith's playcalling.  For much of the night, USC's Justin Wilcox kept his team in man coverage with safeties playing down - a look that USC hasn't shown much of this season.  Smith adjusted to this unexpected look by repeatedly testing the deep ball - just as you would hope your OC would.  I also appreciated how he stuck to the run game and how he allowed Jake to work the middle of the field, even given the disasters he witnessed in the Cal game.  It didn't work out much, but all of those reps are meaningful experiences against top notch competition and will pay dues down the line.  Give credit where credit is due.

  • I felt a little bad watching Sark walk around the field after the game looking for some of his former players to give a hug to.  There wasn't as much of a line of Huskies seeking to embrace their former coach as there was for Chris Petersen when he visited Boise.  It touched me.  

    Then I got over it.

  • Budda Baker returned to the lineup and his impact was felt outside of the box score in a pretty big way.  DC Pete Kwiatkowski blitzed more with his linebackers than any other game that I can recall and it had a significant impact on Cody Kessler's rhythm at QB.  I don't think UW would dare to blitz like that without Budda covering the backside.

  • Chris Petersen is still undefeated for his career in games following a BYE week.

  • This UW defense continues to impress me.  As one poster dutifully noted in the post-game analysis thread, UW's defense has given up 23 second half points... all year (less than 5 per game).  That includes games against three ranked teams, two of which are regarded as a couple of the best offensive teams in the nation.

  • Did you like the Marvin Hall double pass for a TD? I hate to say it, but a whole lot of bubble and smoke screens put on tape by the Huskies set this play up for a touchdown. And it won us the game.

  • We can't forget to mention the offensive line.  Andrew Kirkland made his first career start at RT and partnered with RG Coleman Shelton, C Sifa Tufunga, LG Jake Eldrenkamp, and LT Trey Adams in yet another twisted up offensive line.  Overall, I thought that they held up as well as you could hope in both phases, but I couldn't help but to note that Tufunga continues to struggle in anchoring the middle.  He's requiring a lot of help from his guards which is making it hard for UW to establish the numbers advantages that they work to establish in the running game.  There were rumors that Shane Brostek was going to start at C, but that did not happen last night.  It might against Oregon.

  • The Huskies now get the benefit of having an extra two days to prepare for Oregon at home.  While it doesn't exactly count as a BYE week, one can't help but to think that the extra time is a huge advantage for a UW team that will undoubtedly be a home underdog.