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Grading the Game: Washington’s 12-game Win Streak Comes to an End

Which phases of the game cost the Huskies most dearly in their first loss of the season?

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

No clever lede or witty impartations can lessen the disappointment that I know many of you are waking with this fine Sunday morning. Between Clemson, Michigan, Trump and now Washington, it seems like “upset” is in the air this week. Hell, even Division III power house Mount Union - a team that had 112 straight wins and 24 straight conference titles - lost their matchup to John Carroll yesterday. The Huskies fell victim to it and now we need to assess the damage done. Let’s get into it.

Passing Attack - C-

Raise your paw if you are starting to worry about Jake Browning. For the third time in the last four weeks, we saw Jake struggle with accuracy and timing. For the fourth week in a row, we saw him struggle with the deep ball. The fear here is that “dead arm” might be creeping in for the young QB despite the fact that he has been relatively protected from overexposure thanks to UW’s healthy utilization of a running game for most of the season.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Opponents seem to clearly see what I’m talking about. There has been a clear pattern of defensive game plans presented to UW that involve trying to take the rushing attack away and daring UW to beat them deep. Repeatedly, Jake’s deep ball is either rescued by John Ross or not connected on.

If Jake is indeed suffering from fatigue, then he’s going to need more support from his surrounding pieces than what we saw last night. The offensive line was below average last night with Shane Brostek, Trey Adams, and Coleman Shelton in particular suffering significant lapses in pass protection.

John Ross acquitted himself excellently and may have been UW’s best player on the field last night. But we are starting to see the limitations of a UW receiving corps that can’t generate much opportunity for themselves in short passing game when the deep ball isn’t there. Aaron Fuller and Chico McClatcher were particularly ineffective last night while Dante Pettis and Darrell Daniels were mostly invisible.

On the plus side, I thought Myles Gaskin provided Browning a nice option on a couple of plays and demonstrated that he might be the only receiver on the roster outside of John Ross capable of consistently generating yards after contact. Jonathan Smith might be well-served to find more ways to incorporate Gaskin into the pass game going forward.

Rush Defense - B+

The best unit on the field for UW yesterday was the interior of the defensive line. The best player on the defense was probably Keishawn Bierria. Combined, they produced exceptional results against a USC team that had been leaning on the surging Ronald Jones to set the table for the rest of the offense during this win streak.

The proof is in the results. The Trojans produced just 3.1 yards per carry for the night and generated only 113 yards on the ground overall. Jones was the leading rusher with 93 yards while his partner in crime, RB Justin Davis, managed just four yards on five carries.

The loss of Azeem Victor midway through the game was a difficult blow and clearly had an impact on the game. But D.J. Beavers acquitted himself well enough to support a good grade for this phase of the game.

Pass Defense - B-

This was a story of two defenses. Perimeter pass defense and the middle of the field were like two different games altogether, and each with very different results.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The falling of dominoes that happens when you start to lose players like Azeem Victor (an excellent blitzer) and Joe Mathis (your best pass rusher) involves the more ample use of extra rushers to move the opposing QB off their mark. We saw more blitzing from UW last night than we’d seen all season, in particular from guys like Keishawn Bierria and Budda Baker.

The mobile Sam Darnold was able to take advantage, particularly in the middle of the field. The Huskies were punished time and again for the blitz, with Darnold continuously working that middle of the field to receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rodgers and Deontae Burnett. TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe had a career day (5 catches, 78 yds, 1 TD) while putting on film a blueprint for beating the UW secondary and taking advantage of a lost Azeem Victor.

On the outside, I thought UW was more than adequate. Sidney Jones had another great game while Kevin King was able to hold his own overall. The entire cornerbacks unit was asked to compensate for the lack of a pass rush and they did a good job of preventing big plays and keeping USC’s receivers from generating huge YAC on completed passes. They simply couldn’t cover every blade of grass on the field and the soft middle was where Darnold (23-33, 287 yds) won the game.

Rush Offense - D

Husky fans yesterday were treated to a dose of what has made many fans uncomfortable with Jonathan Smith as offensive coordinator so many times over the past few years: the tendency to abandon the run altogether in close games.

UW’s first quarter didn’t show it on the scoreboard, but it was UW’s most efficient quarter of the game. They averaged just a yard a carry with the rush offense, but the eight carries kept the USC’s defense honest. The result was Browning completing 4-6 and averaging 10 yards a pass.

The rest of the way, UW’s passing attempts completely eclipsed the rush offense. Even adjusting for the mad rush to get back in the game in the fourth quarter, there was a tendency not to stick with the run.

The numbers tell the story. UW managed just 17 yards rushing for what is the worst showing they’ve had since Petersen took over. Adjusting for sacks, the numbers are a little bit better. Gaskin was his normal shifty self, but he struggled to get any kind of room to operate in the middle of the line, who were really struggling to get to the second level. Perimeter blocking was exposed as an issue as UW tried to compensate with more plays going outside.

It was a breakdown all across the coaching-to-player-execution continuum.

Special teams - D+

I’m not sure how much more drama the Huskies can endure in the kicking game. Here we are with two games left still seeing FGs getting blocked and enduring what is probably the worst punting game in the conference. I suppose that we all just have to get used to the idea that this will remain an open wound in the profile of this team.

The return game was not able to compensate for that on this night. UW had no punt returns and averaged just 24 yards per kick return.

The good news is that the coverage units were just fine. That explains the plus next to the D.