If you happen to have any friends or relatives that are Cougars, chances are they went out of their way to point out what a great season WSU was having, and they may have even been so foolish as to predict a win for the Crimson & Grey in the Apple Cup. If so, I'm sure you've enjoyed helping them ingest some sizable helpings of crow. For only the 4th time in history, the Cougars entered this game ranked and the Huskies unranked. And yet WSU has yet to win any of those games, tying Washington back in 1942 and losing the last three times it's happened.
Now, I'm not going to say the Cougars haven't had a good year - they clearly have. And I'm not going to say that missing Luke Falk wasn't a big deal for them - it clearly was. But this was an emphatic win by the Huskies, one that gives them their 2nd win over a ranked opponent in Chris Petersen's tenure here, and the nature of the win suggests the Huskies would have come out on top no matter who was taking snaps for WSU. While some may feel a bit let-down that a clearly talented Washington team only managed six wins on the regular season, I see a program that is on the rise and a team - particularly an offense - that improved as the season progressed. They put that improvement on display Friday. Let's dive into the details...
While not as efficient as he was last week, Jake Browning never the less had a very good game. Yes, he overthrew a wide-open Jaydon Mickens deep on the first Husky drive, and yes, he threw a costly pick on a play where he should have just thrown the ball away. He also forced a ball into a well-covered Dante Pettis that somehow wasn't picked and resulted in a catch for Pettis, and he took a couple of sacks that he probably could have/should have scrambled out of. But those were the only mistakes. On the upside, he completed 14 of 20 passes for 203 yards and he picked up 12 and then 8 yards on some nifty scrambles, he made a terrific throw under pressure to Isaiah Renfro for 43 yards and in general looked in command out there and not like a true frosh. He's certainly not a finished product at this point, but he's already grown quite a bit since game one and the offense has improved along with him. The future is bright, particularly at QB. Grade: B+
Myles Gaskin is clearly a pretty special talent. As a true frosh he has rushed for 1,121 yards, more than any other UW freshman (true or redshirt). He earned every bit of his 138 yards Friday - more than any other game this was one where he found a way to create yards himself both by being very difficult to bring down and finding little cracks of daylight. When WSU finally got a TD after that Browning interception to close the gap to 24-10, the Huskies responded with an 11-play, 84 yard drive, and 7 of those plays were Gaskin runs totaling 55 yards (including the last 5 yards for the TD). His 32 carries were easily a career-high as OC Jonathan Smith leaned on him to grind time off the clock and salt away the win. Gaskin is not yet a complete back - he's not really a factor in the passing game - but his effectiveness as a runner opens up so much for the Husky offense. It was good to see another strong showing from Lavon Coleman, building off his game last week at Oregon State. He's showing improved vision and was able to pick up 39 yards on his 9 carries. Of interest, I noticed Jomon Dotson out there a few times in passing situations running wheel routes as the offense looks to compensate for the loss of Dwayne Washington to injury. Grade: A
Give credit where credit is due: on Senior Day, Mickens had perhaps his best game of the year. He got open deep, he consistently found gaps in the WSU secondary, he made defenders miss and most importantly, he had no drops. His 5 catches for 81 yards led the way for the Huskies, and he added 12 yards on a fly sweep carry. True frosh Renfro keeps showing promise - he made a terrific adjustment and catch on a deep ball from Browning for 43 yards and he brings a physical presence to the receiving group. Pettis had a pretty good game with his 3 catches for 34 yards, but dropped a TD in the 4th quarter. Darrell Daniels continues to be a factor, picking up another couple of catches for 20 yards - an encouraging sign for next season. Another shout-out to Chico McClatcher who scored the first Husky TD on a well-executed reverse that went for 26 yards; he had 40 yards total on 3 carries as the staff appears to be adjusting his role to emphasize his running ability. Grade: B
Another game, another starting lineup. Trey Adams suffered a stinger in warm-ups which necessitated a last-minute adjustment, sliding Andrew Kirkland over to LT and promoting Kaleb McGary at RT after he had been questionable during the week. This could have been an issue for the offense, but the line adapted nicely and did a reasonably good job. They were particularly good in pass-protection as you can pin most of the blame on WSU's two sacks on Browning hanging on to the ball too long. I don't think they were quite as good in run-blocking - I give a lot of credit to Gaskin for making something out of nothing on a lot of his carries - but the Huskies did get 240 yards on the ground on 55 carries, so they clearly weren't bad by any means. I'm struggling to think of the last time I've seen so much shuffling of starters along the OL in a season, but the upside is it's clear that Coach Strausser has a lot of quality depth to work with and it should make for some very good competition in the off-season. Grade: B+
Things didn't get off to a great start for the DL on WSU's first drive as the Huskies struggled to get pressure on Peyton Bender and Gerard Wicks got a nice 6-yard gain on a rare handoff. But they stiffened up after that, getting good bull rushes up the middle to make Bender uncomfortable and the ends were doing a good job collapsing the edges too. Greg Gaines got the start, but Elijah Qualls did see some action out there which was nice to see. The bull rushing was what Coach Choate wanted out of his guys to keep contain and to get bodies in Bender's face, and it worked. Jojo Mathis followed up a nice showing last week with another good game including one of three Husky sacks. The Cougars did manage to bust one 20-yard run from Wicks, but otherwise the front did a good job minimizing damage from the WSU run game and not get burned. It was nice to see Will Dissly and Shane Bowman get some action late, and both got in the stat column as Dissly had a forced fumble and a TFL and Bowman had a fumble recovery. Vita Vea and Mathis also got credit for forced fumbles and Jaylen Johnson got a fumble recovery. Grade: A
Playing against an Air Raid offense is not the ideal situation for Azeem Victor, but he possesses enough lateral quickness to hold up in middle zone coverage, and his presence on the field was a big reason why the Cougar run game wasn't a bigger factor, and he showed off his length and athleticism when he leapt to snare a Bender pass in the 4th quarter and returned it 27 yards for a pick-6. Keishawn Bierria was all over the field, racking up 8 tackles included a TFL and forcing a fumble. Travis Feeney made the start and picked up a TFL before getting dinged-up - getting him healed up for the bowl game will be a priority for the staff. Cory Littleton showed why he'll be missed, coming up with a terrific rush for a sack on Bender and frequently getting pressure from the edge while also doing a good job stringing out the Cougar running plays to the sideline. Psalm Wooching had a nice play in breaking up a swing pass to Wicks with a hard hit, but his throat-slash taunt cost the Huskies 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct and earned Wooching a seat on the bench. Grade: A
When Bender started off the game 6 of his first 7 and Budda Baker then dropped a certain pick that hit him right in the numbers, it felt like a huge missed opportunity. As it turned out, the Husky defense would create many more opportunities throughout the course of the game. Sidney Jones had a big game, getting credit for 3 pass break-ups and reading Bender perfectly on another to step in front of the pass and take it to the house for a 69-yard pick-six. Darren Gardenhire had a scoop and score in the 4th quarter for 28 yards. Baker recovered from his dropped pick to record 2 pass break-ups and was his usual quick-closing self to limit YAC for the Cougar passing game. His range is a major weapon for the Husky defense. Kevin King was outstanding, leading the way with 9 tackles, 2 TFL, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Between Jones, Gardenhire and King the Huskies boast three starting-quality corners. Brian Clay was solid on Senior Day, tying Bierria for 2nd with 8 tackles. While the Cougars did manage to find some open spaces for big gains and allowed Dom Williams to find wide open space in the end zone for the only WSU touchdown, limiting them to 288 yards passing on 58 attempts is impressive. Grade: A
Perhaps the only disappointment of the day was the Huskies not soundly beating the Cougars on special teams. Coming into the game this was a clear advantage for Washington, but this was at best a draw. It didn't end up mattering given how the game played out, but it was disappointing to see Cameron Van Winkle and Tristan Vizcaino miss consecutive FG attempts (33 yards for Van Winkle, 36 yards for Vizcaino) in the 4th quarter as the Huskies looked to drive the final nails in the coffin for WSU. Korey Durkee had a mediocre day, punting 3 times for just a 36.9 yard average (though no returns). Kickoff coverage was mostly good save for one that went for 48; the rest averaged just 14.1 yards. Pettis didn't have a chance for returns on WSU's 3 punts, and McClatcher was limited to 33 yards on his 2 kickoff returns. Grade: C-
Washington's backs were up against the wall heading into this game - it was win or else face a losing record on the season and the probability their 5-year bowl streak would end. But rather than play tight as the team with the most to lose, they instead came out focused and fired-up, determined to prove to WSU's Gunnar Eklund that yes, the Huskies do in fact hit harder, thankyouverymuch. Give some credit to Coach Petersen for bringing in Husky legends Warren Moon, Sonny Sixkiller, Jermaine Kearse, Michael Jackson and Lawyer Milloy during the week to make sure the young pups understood the importance of winning the Apple Cup.
I don't know how much attention Pete Kwiatkowski pays to these things, but the finalists for the Broyles Award for the top assistant coach were announced earlier in the week, and Cougar DC Alex Grinch was on the list but not Kwiatkowski. The Huskies made that decision look foolish as Coach K's defense proved once again to have the right answers for the WSU Air Raid. They did a great job of mixing up and disguising coverages, and thanks to the pressure up front generated by just four rushers, they were able to consistently drop seven (and sometimes eight) into coverage, and against a first-time starter in Bender that was a recipe for a lot of poor throws. Now to be fair, we haven't seen how this approach will work against a veteran starter in that offense, but the Husky staff has to feel encouraged by what they've seen in the last two Apple Cups.
Much-maligned OC Jonathan Smith saw his troops execute well enough to put up 443 yards of total offense at 5.9 yards/play, both above-average results against the Cougar defense. The offense was able to run the ball effectively and open up the passing game, and were able to convert 7 of 15 chances on 3rd downs. It's been encouraging to see the effort to get McClatcher more involved in the run game and Daniels become a bigger part of the passing game, and it was very satisfying to see how the Husky offense responded in the 3rd quarter after a damaging pick off of Browning led to the only WSU TD and closing the gap to just 2 scores. They marched down the field in 11 plays to respond with their own TD, with 8 of those plays being runs as the Huskies burned nearly 4.5 minutes off the clock and pushed the lead back up to three touchdowns, all but closing the door on any Cougar comeback hopes.
It's fun to note that not only did the Husky offense outscore WSU (24-10), so did the defense (21-10). This is a team that has clearly shown improvement over the course of the season, and it will be fun to see if they can build off of that in their bowl game to keep positive momentum heading into what should be a very good 2016 season. Grade: A+