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What We Learned: Fiesta Bowl Edition

It’s a bumpy road to the top.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Capping off another 10 win season was a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a very disappointing performance and outcome, and one that will be hard to think about until the 2018 season rolls around. I’ve focused mostly on the defense for this piece, as their poor performance was the most surprising. What they’re normally great at - forcing short plays, not allowing anything deep, and being super efficient - all but disappeared. On the other hand, forcing turnovers, a relative weakness, kept them in this game.

Even though their play may have raised more questions than answers, here’s what we learned:

Pass rush reinforcements needed

I’ve gone back forth on this all year - are the Huskies good at rushing the passer? At times they certainly have been. However, the 3- and 4-man fronts that worked so well against UCLA, Washington State, Colorado, Cal, and others, were stymied by the Big 10 East runners-up. But that shouldn’t be surprising - Penn State is better than every team the Huskies played this year. If the Huskies want to win those games, help is needed on the edges of the defense. Mind you, this was against a Penn State OL much maligned for being the unit that’s held the team back the past two years.

Penn State had a similar offensive game plan to Stanford in some respects, one designed to force UW into substantial talent or size mismatches. First, they neutralized Vita Vea and Greg Gaines by hitting them from all sides on every play. When third downs eventually came, they trusted the offensive line against a UW pass rush lacking any substantial athleticism. Once a team is able to keep Gaines and Vea in check, the Husky defense becomes much more manageable. There are exploitable mismatches for an offense to take advantage of.

Now, the massive grain of salt here is that Penn State is a really great football team, especially on offense. You all know how good Saquon Barkley is. You probably knew about the QB, McSorley, as well. They’re experienced, talented, and well coached. The RPO game is tough to stop, but is made much easier with bona fide pass rushers. Time and time again, Husky linebackers got sucked up to the line of scrimmage only for a pass to be dumped over their heads. More heat from the edge would force quarterbacks into uncomfortable spots, not allowing them to bait LBs as easily.

Washington finished the season with 38 sacks, top 20 in the nation. But the statistical leader on the team, Ryan Bowman, only had 5.5. He was also the only defensive linemen to record a sack or TFL against Penn State. Tevis Bartlett, who has otherwise had a good season (12 TFL), made 4 tackles but none behind the line of scrimmage. Benning Potoa’e, for all his size and physical ability, has not shown much consistency.

Pass rush is a critically important aspect of any defense and the fact the coaches have managed to put the Huskies in the top 20 for team sacks is pretty incredible. But if the gap is to be closed against teams like Penn State and Alabama (not to mention USC and Stanford), we need more DUDES. The coaches have about nine months to figure it out.

The wide receivers need all the help they can get next year

Between injuries and recruiting misses, the wide receiver corps and pass game in general were fairly disappointing this year. I won’t rehash those issues, except to say the lack of viable options besides Dante Pettis hurt the Huskies again. Without analyzing every single play, it’s safe to say Jake Browning doesn’t hold the ball as long as he does if receivers can get open and/or make plays. To be clear, Browning isn’t blameless in this matter - sometimes you gotta trust your guys or just make a play. We’re seeing a bit of rapport develop with Aaron Fuller, but more is needed. I like the idea of Baccellia and Fuller being in the rotation next year - I think they can hurt teams as #3 and #4 options. I’d also love to be proven wrong and for one to emerge as a real threat, but that’s unlikely.

Between players coming off of redshirt seasons or injuries, and new recruits coming in, the options out wide are about to get a whole lot better. Remember how Penn State’s receivers won their one on one matchups, and made plays? The Huskies have struggled by having too few of those on offense recently. They’ve had some, but not enough. Here are some of the options next year that didn’t play in the Fiesta Bowl:

  • Chico McClatcher
  • Hunter Bryant (okay, fine; he played, but didn’t record a stat or make an impact)
  • Alex Cook (RS)
  • Terrell Bynum (RS)
  • Austin Osborne (FR)
  • Marquis Spiker (FR)
  • Trey Lowe (FR)

That is still a young group, but hot-diggitty-damn if they aren’t talented. Combined with the players returning next year (Salvon Ahmed, Ty Jones, Myles Gaskin perhaps?), 2018 should be the deepest and most talented group of skill players Petersen has had at his disposal. Young still, but the seeds for the future are there.

Sitting here watching the Rose Bowl, having a QB like Baker Mayfield would be cool too.

Byron Murphy is quite good

I needed to include something positive in this list, and Murphy’s performance in his home state came quickly to mind. The legend of Byron Murphy began when the high 4-star recruit committed to Washington over hometown Arizona State, and was one of the most talented recruits Petersen has ever redshirted, which only served to grow his hype. While he’s spent much of the season injured, he’s been a playmaker when on the field, outside of a tough game against Utah.

His toe-dragging interception in the end zone was a thing of beauty and continued to showcase his elite-level ball skills. He also had two TFLs and a sack, big plays that kept this game from being more lopsided. He’s truly a natural football player with a knack for being around the ball.

The rest of the secondary had much tougher days. Without spending too much time on it, it is worth keeping an eye on where Myles Bryant and Austin Joyner find themselves in the rotation of a stacked secondary next year. They got beat a number of times against Penn State, and could stand to improve their downfield coverage. Byron Murphy is sure to get tons of off-season hype and will join a when-he’s-healthy Jordan Miller on the outside as your likely starters.

I’m sure I’ve missed some things, and there’s plenty to keep digesting after that. Husky fans, what did you learn?