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Grading the Game: Washington vs. Utah State

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Washington hosted a scrappy Utah State team that has had a fair amount of success in recent years, but the Huskies took care of business and sent the Aggies back to Logan, Utah with another loss to a Power-5 conference school.

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't a perfect game by any stretch, and there will be much the coaching staff can point out for improvement in film study this week, but the Huskies notched their 2nd win of the season and showed continuing improvement - particularly at QB - which gives hope that they can hold their own in conference play.  Utah State provided a nice challenge - particularly with their aggressive, blitzing defense - and while they couldn't get anything going in the run game, they kept Jake Browning upright and allowed him to exploit the Aggie secondary.  On to the grades!

QB:

As Chris mentioned to me during the game yesterday, it's funny that we Husky fans ever thought the QB race was in doubt. Young Mr. Browning keeps growing in front of our eyes and he's showing enormous potential.  Perhaps if given the chance both Jeff Lindquist and K.J. Carta-Samuels would also shine, but right now it's Browning's show and he's improving each week and giving Husky fans reason to wonder just how good he could become.  He's showing terrific poise and better-than-expected ability to escape pressure, and it appears the playbook is growing around him.  There were at least a couple of times on run-pass option package plays where he threw darts over the middle for nice gains and he had good success on a couple of play-action rollouts, showing good accuracy on the run to his right.  His deep ball to Dwayne Washington for a 33-yard TD was perfectly-thrown.  It wasn't all perfection - there was a miscommunication early with Brayden Lenius, and the interception that led off the 2nd half was a throw he'd like to have back.  But he also had a streak of 12 consecutive completions, and he posted a passer rating of 196.2 on the day.  I have a feeling we'll see a lot more days like this from him over the next few years.  Grade:  A

RB:

Despite some cries from the stands for Myles Gaskin, Washington continues to hold on to the starting job and yesterday was a good example of why.  While running lanes were few and far between and his stat line on his rushes was ugly (5 carries, 2 yards), it was everything else he did that showed his value.  Against a team that brings a lot of pressure, his blocking ability was critical.  And more importantly he provided a highly effective target in the passing game as he once again led Husky receivers, this time with 5 catches for 131 yards and 2 touchdowns.  The first was a simple outlet swing pass where he turned on his jets and outran the defense to the edge to take it 81 yards to the house.  The second was a go route where he was a huge mismatch against the Utah State MLB and hauled in a 33 yard TD.  He also provides a threat in the middle screen game and picked up a key first down late in the 1st quarter.  Gaskin provided value on the ground as he led UW rushers with 42 yards on 15 carries.  The stretch plays and sweeps were not at all effective, but when they went to inside zone runs in the 2nd half Gaskin started to find some room.  I like his potential, but he's not at a point yet where he can create a lot from nothing, so he (and Washington) are still highly dependent on the blocking up front.  Grade:  C+

WR/TE:

Jaydon Mickens continues to be the steady presence in the receiving corps; he finished with 4 catches for 54 yards, and it's perhaps a testament to how big he's been for the Huskies in his career that this feels rather quiet for him.  Brayden Lenius was a favorite target of Browning in fall camp, and that connection was reinforced in this one as he tied Mickens with 4 catches for 54 yards of his own.  Lenius provides a huge catch radius with his 6'5" frame and long arms and as he continues to develop you can see where he could develop into a tremendous red-zone threat.  Darrell Daniels had (by far) his best game of the year with 4 catches for 75 yards and was a great target for Browning dragging across the field on his rollouts.  RS-Fr Drew Sample grabbed his first TD on a scramble drill as he rolled with his QB and found some space behind the defense near the back of the end zone and made a nice grab of a high pass.  Other than a bobble and drop by Quinten Pounds and the miscommunication with Lenius early in the 1st quarter, the receivers were getting open and making some tough catches.  Blocking out on the edges - particularly with the tight ends - remains an issue.  Grade:  B

OL:

For the past few years grading the OL was balance of the good (run-blocking) vs. the bad (pass-blocking); yesterday the line flipped the script, and it was a balance of the bad (run-blocking) vs. the good (pass-blocking).  An injury to Jake Eldrenkamp during practices last week set off a chain-reaction of adjustments to the starting OL as Coleman Shelton slid over from LT to start at LG and Trey Adams moved up to start at LT.  Kaleb McGary - who had been splitting game reps with starter Matt James at RT - got the start too, and along with him Jesse "Boomer" Sosebee got the start at RG over Shane Brostek.  Coach Petersen was vague after the game about the changes on the right side of the line, but the result was that only one guy along the starting line was a repeat from the first two games - C Sifa Tufunga.  Perhaps part of the decision-making with the starters was a response to the aggressive blitzing of Utah State's defense.  There's no question that in terms of pass-blocking, this unit did a very good job.  Browning was sacked only once, and while he had to scramble out of pressure a few other times, the line generally held up against the various pressures the Aggies brought and gave Browning enough time to find openings against their secondary.  The run-blocking on the other hand was not good.  Those same pressures also clogged running lanes, and the line did not look good on power plays and the outside zones.  It was only when they went more to inside zone plays that they were able to create some room, but even then these were only modestly successful.  Grade:  B-

DL:

One of the tough things to do when looking back at these games without the benefit of studying the film for hours on end is distinguishing between the play of the DL and the linebackers (especially given the fluid nature of the OLB/DE roles).  What's not in question is that the front seven did a really good job of stifling the Utah State run game, never really allowing their backs to get into a rhythm on offense or sustain drives with the ground game.  From the stands it looked like the DL was very effective in holding their gaps, allowing the linebackers to find the ball-carrier and generally muddying up the running lanes.  They were less effective in the pass rush, but while they didn't notch any sacks, they did get pressure on Chuckie Keeton and more importantly were disciplined in their lanes and keeping contain on him.  While he had a few decent scrambles, he wasn't a big threat with his feet (though his gimpy leg was likely a factor as well).  Grade:  B

LB:

Azeem Victor continues to show he could be the next in a growing line of NFL linebackers from the Huskies in recent years (Donald Butler, Mason Foster, Shaq Thompson, John Timu).  He set the tone on the opening kickoff with a huge hit on the Utah State return man and didn't let up the rest of the day.  He was all over the field, particularly in the first half when he racked-up 11 tackles including one TFL.  He finished with 12 to lead all tacklers.  Keishawn Bierria had his best game of the season so far, ranging sideline to sideline and getting into the backfield to harass Keeton.  Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton both had good games, getting pressure on the edges while (usually) keeping contain as well as doing a decent job in underneath zone coverage.  While the rotations weren't as liberal as last week vs. Sacramento State, Scott Lawyer flashed at times on the 2nd unit in place of Victor.  This is an athletic unit that is showing they could be the backbone to a surprisingly strong defense in 2015.  Grade:  A-

Secondary:

Despite losing star FS Budda Baker early in the game when a Utah State player rolled up his ankle, this group had another effective day.  JoJo McIntosh picked up for Baker and had a strong game, particularly in run support.  Along with Zeke Turner, he gives the Huskies a pair of very physical safeties in the back end.  Brandon Beaver put in his bid for more time with a great play near the Husky goal line as he correctly read a post route, jumped it and very nearly took it the distance before he ran out of gas.  As it was he still recorded the longest interception return in Husky history with 96 yards.  Had Kevin King looked the other direction he might have provided the block needed to assure Beaver would score; as it was, King picked up his 3rd interception of the season with an athletic grab on a long Keeton 3rd down pass.  Darren Gardnenhire was likely kicking himself after the game, having failed to corral a Keeton throw right in his hands early in the 2nd quarter, but he had a big game with 8 tackles including some key stops.  Sidney Jones had a TFL and a pass break-up, and should have had a second but for a questionable PI call by the refs (more on them later).  All told, this group helped hold Keeton to just 17 of 33 passing for only 171 yards and 2 picks; while he's not a great thrower, he's had his moments earlier in his career.  Grade:  B+

Special Teams:

You have to give Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Choate a lot of credit - his units have shown a lot of creativity and effectiveness.  The latest such display was a well-executed fake FG attempt where Tristan Vizcaino took a direct snap and ran the longest 2 yards of his career for a big TD in the 2nd quarter and put the Huskies up 17-3.  Vizcaino nearly blew-it as he was close to a false-start (apparently there was a good in the snap count), but he showed good wheels.  The punt return unit came close a couple of times to getting a block but settled for sub-par punts from the Aggie kicker.  Chico McClatcher showed his wheels as Budda's replacement on the kickoff return unit including one 29-yard return that he was thisclose to breaking for much more.  The only downside was subpar kickoff coverage.  While Victor had a great tackle on the first kickoff, the Huskies allowed Utah State to return three kickoffs for 98 yards, including a 60-yarder that set up the Aggies' first score.  They only got 3 returns because Vizcaino booted the other three for touchbacks.  Korey Durkee boomed his two punts, averaging 52.5 and allowing just one return for -1.  Grade:  A-

Coaching:

I think you have to give this staff a lot of credit for a good gameplan and (mostly) very good execution.  While Utah State would likely be a lower-tier team in the Pac-12, they usually play Power-5 teams tough and have averaged 10 wins per year over the last three seasons.  This was a game the Huskies easily could have won 38-10 (or better), and that's both a credit and a critique.

Jonathan Smith had both a strong game and a terrible game.  I loved the play-action rollouts he called and he's implemented some effective package plays.  He's got Browning attacking the middle of the field and after a long absence the quick slants over the middle have returned as a factor in the Husky offense.  He dialed up a great middle-screen in the 1st half on a key 3rd down play, and despite the major re-shuffling along the OL they had an effective plan of attack in the passing game to get the ball out quickly and take advantage of a mediocre Aggie secondary.  And then there were the Jeff Lindquist plays.  While I like the idea in concept, there has to be some evolution and expansion of the play-calling from that look.  Sticking with read-options, fly sweeps and traditional option plays is unnecessarily limiting the effectiveness of this look.  Lindquist is a QB, and by most accounts was in serious contention to win the job up until the final week of camp, so why not give him the opportunity to pass in those formations?  As well, he's not an option QB - he didn't look comfortable running those plays, and that's not his background.  I think Smith got waaaay too cute with those looks near the goal line, and it ended up costing him.

While the Utah State offense is not to be confused with Baylor, this is the third straight game where the Husky defense has looked sound and very effective.  They held the Aggies to 10 points, and if not for Turner knocking his teammate Jones down in coverage on a 49-yard pass play that led to the lone Utah State TD, they might have held them to only 3.  The tackling has improved from their shaky first half against Boise State and they've been opportunistic in pass defense with 4 picks already on the year.  We can quibble about the pass rush (only 3 sacks so far) and the quality of the opposition, but they've looked quite good overall, and perhaps more importantly they've looked deep with quality play from the 2nd string.

You can see bright spots all across the roster, and there's been clear improvement over these first three games.  While they're clearly not an elite team at this point, they also look better than the 4.5 win team that Vegas bettors saw before the season started, and I think we need to give this staff some credit for how this young and fairly inexperienced roster has progressed.  Grade:  B

Special mention: Referees:

After a very clean first couple of games with no obvious gaffes by the officials, yesterday was a return to the bungled Pac-12 officiating we're all familiar with.  Here's what Charles Barkley thought of their performance:

From a highly-questionable PI call against Sidney Jones early in the game to repeated no-calls on obvious holding penalties against Utah State to the worst one - a face-mask call against Darrell Daniels on the Lenius fumble.  Now, I can't be entirely certain that Darrell Daniels wasn't on the field for that play, it sure doesn't appear he was.  So the refs calling a face-mask against #15 on the passing team was clearly wrong.  What's not incorrect is that the player that scooped up the fumble for Utah State was wearing #15 (Tyler Floyd), and what was clear on the replay shown on the HuskyTron was him with a firm grasp of Dwayne Washington's facemask, yanking his head violently to the side (probably the reason why he stayed down on the field for several minutes after).  It's possible that Washington also got a hold of Floyd's facemask, that should have resulted in (at worst) off-setting penalties.  If it weren't for the replay booth there would have been more errors favoring Utah State.  Grade:  F