Was it Confucius or Bo Schembechler who once said, “The beauty of a conference road win is in the eye of the beholder?” The sentiment clearly applies to UW’s ugly victory against the once-hapless UCLA Bruins. Was the subpar performance a wakeup call? Did UCLA’s blue-chip Bruins suddenly wake up from their hibernation? Do the Dawgs have a tendency to play to the level of their competition? Was UW caught looking ahead to their Duck hunt? Maybe, just maybe, might the Huskies not be the top-10 team the polls say they are?
No matter how you look at the narrative of the game, one thing is clear: the Huskies did not play one of their better games in the Rose Bowl. That truth becomes even more obvious when you break down the game by the component pieces. Without further ado, let’s grade the game.
Passing Offense: C+
It’s easy to forget that the Huskies took a commanding 24-7 lead into the locker room at halftime and looked primed to put UCLA away. A solid portion of that lead came through the passing game when UCLA committed extra men to the box to slow down the rush offense. Jake Browning threw for 202 of his 265 yards before halftime. Early attempts to run the ball were unsuccessful because there were simply more defenders than blockers. Browning responded with long and intermediate completions to practically every pass catcher on the roster. Notably, Aaron Fuller caught a 46-yard deep ball and made a great play on a 25-yard TD on a pass that was not thrown particularly well.
On the other hand, the passing offense sputtered in the second half when the play calls shifted away from the run. Even when things were going well in the first half, Browning threw one of his uglier balls of the year that sailed over an open receiver for an easy interception. Two important drives came up empty in the second half, largely because failures in the passing game put the offense behind the chains.
Rushing Offense: C
Myles Gaskin finally had the statistical breakout that fans have wanted to see all year. He did so with a much higher volume of carries, but not necessarily with better efficiency. Gaskin finished the game with 116 yards and 2 TDs, but it took him 27 carries to get there. While he gets credit for clearly playing through pain in the second half, 4.3 YPC is far below the level of performance he has established for himself. Likewise, Salvon Ahmed only managed 2.7 YPC for the game.
I mentioned earlier that the Bruins committed themselves to stopping the run, so the defensive front gets some of the credit. On the other hand, the offensive line was unimpressive in both pass and run blocking. The bright spot here might be Browning’s oddly effective QB sneaks and scrambles. He finished with 49 rushing yards, but given his athleticism compared to the rest of UW’s playmakers, it would be preferable if he didn’t run the ball 13 times with any regularity.
Passing Defense: D+
The vaunted Husky secondary was humiliated by a true freshman QB with accuracy problems. Going into this game, it appeared that one matchup that simply couldn’t go UCLA’s way was their passing game against the Husky pass defense. Instead, Dorian Thompson-Robinson had no trouble evading pressure and finding seams in the zone coverage. It seemed like Caleb Wilson and Theo Howard sat in the intermediate part of the zone with impunity all night, and they combined for 17 catches and 162 yards.
Schematically, I’m sure we will get more precise answers in the film study, but it seemed like the UW blitz backfired more often than it helped. Jimmy Lake brought extra pressure more often than usual. The pressure forced DTR to move, but didn’t get home for a single sack. Instead, it created openings in the secondary which DTR found far more easily than you would expect from an inexperienced, run-first QB. While hindsight is 20/20, it makes you wonder if DTR would have had nearly the same success if he had to pick apart 7-8 man coverages without holes created by blitzes. Taylor Rapp’s interception on a tipped ball is the only thing that earns the “+” after the D grade.
Rushing Defense: D
Even in the worst games, Coach K and Jimmy Lake’s defenses have always tackled well. Not against the Bruins. The constant missed tackles and lack of defensive discipline were even more jarring to watch than the blown assignments in the secondary.
At least the uncharacteristic blitzes helped explain why there were openings in the pass game. What is the explanation for Joshua Kelley repeatedly waltzing through tackles for big gains? With all due respect to Kelley, UW has stymied much more talented backs than the UC-Davis transfer. Although UCLA blocked reasonably well, defenders had chances at Kelley and took bad routes or bounced off him too many times. Was it a lack of focus? Husky defenses have done well against Chip Kelly’s offensive system against Oregon for the last several years, so it seems unlikely that the scheme could catch them off guard.
Special Teams: C
The special teams performances on Saturday were not noteworthy, which qualifies as a major improvement. Oddly, Race Porter handled the only first half punt and Joel Whitford returned for the second half. I have not heard any explanation for the old switch-a-’Roo (get it? Cuz Whitford is Australian?). Peyton Henry made a field goal that would be considered a gimme for most kickers. Gaskin appeared over-eager to prove himself as a kick returner, twice taking the ball out of the end zone and costing several yards of starting field position. Nonetheless, special teams were not the problem this week, although there was plenty of blame to go around elsewhere.