I don't believe in curses, and I have serious doubts this team of Huskies harbors any kind of mental block when it comes to Arizona State and the now 10-game losing streak. But yesterday's game won't stop many from believing otherwise as the Huskies seemed to be battling against fate the whole game. While they started off the game playing lights-out on defense and gaining big chunks of yards on offense, they left points on the field as receivers dropped passes and other passes were not quite on-target. They gained 341 yards of offense in the 1st half, but that translated into only 17 points; had they executed better, it could have been as much as 35 points and the Sun Devils would have been buried. Instead, those missed opportunities haunted the Huskies as the offense couldn't get anything going in the 2nd half and the defense slipped just enough to turn the momentum squarely toward the home team.
This is frankly a difficult game to grade. There was plenty to like about the game as the offense managed 547 yards and 6.4 yards/play, both well above average allowed by ASU. But numerous mistakes meant only 17 points came from all that offense, and while the defense was terrific in the 1st half (7 of 8 drives ending in punts), they couldn't stem the tide in the 2nd half. The end result was perhaps the most frustrating loss of the Chris Petersen era, leaving the Dawgs at 4-6 and with their backs to the wall. On to the grades:
Jake Browning's day was a microcosm of the entire game in many ways. He set career highs with 52 pass attempts and 402 yards, but only 28 were completed for just 1 TD while also suffering 3 interceptions. Against ASU's aggressive defense that frequently leaves their secondary in one-on-one matchups, the Huskies felt they could exploit that with shots downfield, and that was true - Browning completed five passes longer than 20 yards. What hurt though is there was a lot more to be had, but a combination of drops and off-target throws let the Sun Devils off the hook. Drops were a big problem, especially early in the game, but Jake wasn't at his most accurate either. He over threw a wide-open Josh Perkins on one play and later was a foot short, allowing the ASU defender to break up what should have been a TD. There were other passes that were a hair ahead or behind his receivers too, turning what should have been easy completions into drops. When the running game stopped working, the passing game simply didn't have enough consistency to sustain drives, and when Arizona State took the lead, the true freshman pressed and threw three picks (sandwiched around a Josh Perkins' fumble). It probably felt like he had to carry the offense on his back, but he's simply not ready to do so - he needs more help from his teammates. This was a tough lesson for him, and we'll see how much he's able to learn from it and grow. Grade: B-
Here's another measure of how the day went for the offense: in the first quarter, Myles Gaskin gained 91 yards on 7 carries; he gained just 17 yards on his last 11 carries as the running game ceased to be effective. Gaskin's 53-yard run in the 1st quarter was a thing of beauty as it showcased everything that makes him good - his patience, vision, burst and ability to run through contact. But too often from the 2nd quarter on the running lanes just weren't there as ASU plugged gaps and got penetration into the backfield to stop runs before they could develop, and other than a pair of 6-yard runs, Gaskin was unable to get anything going on the ground. Not having Dwayne Washington healthy hurt in the passing game as Gaskin and Deontae Cooper just don't have great hands. Grade: B-
On the one hand the receivers were frequently able to get open, and they accounted for 394 of the 405 passing yards. There were great plays by Jaydon Mickens on a wheel route for 43 yards and some key first down conversions, Marvin Hall getting open deep for a 46 yard gain, the (re-)emergence of TE Darrell Daniels with 4 catches for 61 yards and a TD, a nice game for true frosh Isaiah Renfro with 3 catches for 30 yards and some tough running and Brayden Lenius leading the way with 6 catches. On the other hand, the ongoing issue of drops was a killer, as multiple scoring opportunities were missed ranging from tough catches that weren't made to flat-out drops. There were (by my count) 11 passes the receivers got their hands on but didn't catch, three of them by Mickens, three more by Pettis and a killer drop on what should have been a TD by Hall. Add in a fumble late after a catch by Perkins and you can see how the bad outweighed the good in this one. If Browning is going to have the career he appears capable of here at Washington, he's going to need more support from his receivers. Grade: C-
If the offense started off hot and then stopped working, you can probably look up front for the primary cause. The OL was faced with the tough task of dealing with the variety and volume of blitzes sent their way by ASU HC Todd Graham, and in the 1st quarter they held up extremely well - Browning had time to set his feet and find his target, and there was running room to be had by Gaskin. Those holes in the running game dried up in the 2nd quarter though, and the Sun Devil pass rush started finding their groove in the 2nd half, ending up with four sacks on the day. Another thing that stands out in regard to this group is the lack of faith the coaching staff has in their run-blocking on short-yardage situations. We've seen a number of gimmicks designed for these situations - the Lindquist formation, the Gaskin wildcat and yesterday a new gimmick play using K.J. Carta-Samuels as an H-back in motion and then quickly settling under center for a QB sneak to try to catch the defense off-guard. All of these gimmicks are taking reps in practice, and all because it appears the staff has no confidence in just lining up in standard personnel and running the ball. That may be a tactical error on their part, but it also speaks to how they view this group. Grade: C+
As good as Greg Gaines looks at times, it's clear that this defense misses Elijah Qualls. In the 4th quarter with the game in the balance, the Husky defense was not as sharp or effective as they'd been in the 1st half, and it's hard not to think that fatigue played a part in that. Gaines is playing very well, but while Vita Vea has enormous potential, it's a big drop-off going from Qualls->Gaines to Gaines->Vea. Qualls also brings a much greater pass-rush threat up the middle, and that pressure up the middle is often the difference between a sack and a QB scrambling away for a big gain or finding an open receiver. These guys were a big reason why the Sun Devil offense was so anemic in the 1st half as they clogged gaps, shed blocks and limited the ASU running game to just 36 yards on 17 carries. But those gaps weren't getting plugged as well in the 4th quarter, and of the four sacks recorded by the Huskies, none came from the interior guys. Besides Gaines, I thought Tupou flashed at times, but I'm becoming concerned with how ineffective Jojo Mathis has looked for most of the season. Get well soon Elijah. Grade: B
Much like the rest of the team, these guys were much better in the 1st half than they were late. Together with the DL, the linebackers were critical in shutting down the Sun Devil run game early, but victims late. As well as MLB Azeem Victor played in the game - and he had some terrific plays, including a highlight reel worthy stop for a loss on Mike Bercovici on a read-option - his failure to wrap-up against Kalen Ballage in the 4th quarter was the difference between a 7 yard gain and the 48 yard TD it turned out to be, a TD that nailed the coffin shut on Washington's chances. Against a big back like Ballage, trying for the SportsCenter big hit instead of a fundamental form tackle was a major brain-cramp. Victor has All-American potential, but he has to stay mentally disciplined. For most of the game though they played well. Victor had 9 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 pass break-up. Keishawn Bierria had 2 sacks. Cory Littleton had 8 tackles including a bone-jarring sack on Bercovici. Travis Feeney had 8 tackles, 0.5 sacks and 1.5 TFL. They displayed the range and discipline that allows them to effectively deal with spread offenses. But they were unable to make enough of those plays late to bail out the offense. Grade: B+
Arizona State's offense is one that really tests the defense's ability to defend the entire field - they do a great job of stressing the edges with bubble screens, tunnel screens and flares. The Huskies had some success shedding blocks and swarming the receiver early in the game to limit the damage on these plays, but were less effective as the game wore on. ASU also found a lot of success with their tight ends as Kody Kohl picked up 55 yards on 4 catches. And they were caught out of position and gashed for the 32 yard TD catch and run by Devin Lucien that tied the game at 17-all. In the first half they limited Bercovici to 10 of 20 passing for 97 yards; in the second half he was 12 of 14 for 156 yards and a TD. They will need to play better in a couple of weeks vs. Washington State where they will be tested all game long. Grade: C+
This was quietly one of the worst games of the season for this group. While they didn't give up any big returns or have any major disasters like a blocked punt, they were consistently losing the field position battle and compounding that with silly penalties. Cameron Van Winkle had the most obvious mistake as he hooked a 45-yard FG attempt that would have extended Washington's lead to 20-10 and - perhaps - given the offense a bit of a boost when they needed to regain some confidence. Korey Durkee rebounded from his gaffe last week to have a solid game as the Huskies had a net average of 38.8 yards on their punts, but a stupid kick-catch interference penalty against Chico McClatcher and a holding penalty on Will Dissly gave ASU 25 free yards. Dante Pettis had a tough time with the punts from Matt Haack, and while he gained 39 yards on 5 returns, the Sun Devils still had a 42.5 yard net average on their kicks - and that's not including the two penalties against Jordan Miller that cost Washington 17 yards. Tristan Vizcaino did a nice job on kickoffs, with his four kickoffs resulting in an average starting position of just inside the 21 yard line for ASU; on the other side of the ledger, each of the six Sun Devil kickoffs went for touchbacks. Grade: C-
While we have rightly praised the young Huskies for playing tough throughout the season and (aside from perhaps the Stanford game) staying close in games and giving themselves a chance to win. Yesterday for one of the few times on the year they started off hot and had multiple opportunities to bury their opponent and kill their will. Instead, they failed to take advantage of their opportunities and allowed the Sun Devils to regain confidence and saw a 17-0 lead turn into a 27-17 loss. Part of that can be attributed to a younger group learning tough lessons; part could be insufficient leadership within the team. And part of it certainly goes back to the coaching staff and their ability to influence the team's emotional state and ability to respond to adversity.
There will be criticisms of Jonathan Smith's play-calling as there always is. Some will (and have) wondered why the play-calling was heavily titled towards the passing game. I would suggest folks go through the play-by-play and check how the flow of the game went, how the running game performed after the 1st quarter and what the down-and-distance situations were. Smith's play-calling was defensible - ASU's pass defense was their weakness coming into the game, and with their leader Jordan Simone going out of the game early with an injury only reinforced that idea. The Huskies clearly had a good plan as the game started, but failures to execute in critical situations meant that 341 yards only produced 17 points. You could certainly argue that the coaches didn't do enough in the 2nd half to adjust to what ASU's defense was doing, and you could argue that Smith should have been more stubborn with the run game, hoping to get it going and to chew up more clock. But it's also clear that plays were available in the passing game and had a few more of them connected in the 1st half, we'd be celebrating a win today.
It's hard to put too much critique on the defense. After a very strong first half, they found themselves getting no help from their offense in the 2nd half, and whether it was lack of adjustments, not enough quality depth and/or wearing down in the desert warmth or simply mental mistakes, they allowed the Sun Devils to gain confidence on offense and take a 20-17 lead, at which point Browning started pressing and four straight Husky possessions ended in turnovers. One area that yet again will need to be a point of emphasis this week is tackling fundamentals.
As Coach Petersen mentioned after the game, the team is now backed-up against a wall and has no more margin for error. Next week will provide a chance to regain confidence as they travel to a rebuilding Oregon State team that is struggling mightily and sits winless in the conference. They need to step on the Beavers early and not let up and give themselves a chance to get that sixth win in the Apple Cup. How this team bounces back next week will tell us a lot. Grade: C+