During the Chris Petersen era, the Washington Huskies defensive strategy has been largely predicated on one principle above all others: forcing opposing offenses to earn every single yard, no matter how consequential that individual yard may be. On Saturday, the Dawgs employed that strategy to great effect, beating the Arizona State Sun Devils for just the second time since 2001. While the seven-point margin of victory made fans sweat the outcome for longer than they would have liked (the Huskies were favored by 18 points at kickoff), there’s no denying that Washington looked like a more complete team against ASU than they did a week earlier at Utah, and should still be considered one of the favorites to win this year’s Pac-12 championship.
Rushing Offense: B+
Though Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed were held out of the end zone for the second time this season, both players made meaningful contributions on the ground as the duo produced 157 yards on 31 carries. Seven of their runs went for 10 yards or longer, while in third-down situations, Washington ran four times for 21 yards (including two Jake Browning scrambles that began as pass plays). Two of those attempts converted first downs, while a third (a Myles Gaskin rush between the tackles on 3rd-and-11 midway through the fourth quarter) was designed to keep the clock running more than it was to gain meaningful yards.
The offensive line won most of their head-to-head battles with the ASU front seven, limiting the Sun Devils to a season-low three tackles for loss, although one resulted in a critical loss of seven yards for the Huskies on 2nd-and-goal from the two yard line.
In short, Saturday was a lunch-pail performance for the Washington running game: It wasn’t necessarily flashy, and it didn’t produce much in the way of SportsCenter Top 10 highlights, but it was undeniably effective at moving the chains and did a great job of helping sell the offense’s play-action passes.
Passing Offense: A-
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Jake Browning we saw against ASU’s pass rush was night and day compared to Browning versus Utah. Against the Utes, Browning bailed from the pocket and retreated backward, resulting in sacks, a horrific interception and an intentional grounding penalty. Against the Sun Devils, he stepped up into the pocket and evaded parallel to the line of scrimmage, buying time with his feet to locate an open receiver. That capability was best exemplified by Browning’s beauty of a touchdown pass to Ty Jones, which he completed in the face of pressure from seven ASU defenders.
In third-down scenarios, Browning completed five of six attempts for 41 yards, resulting in two first-downs and a touchdown. One of those first-downs was Andre Baccellia’s pivotal catch near the sideline on the game’s final drive, which allowed the Huskies to run out the clock and secure the win.
The unsung heroes, as always, were the offensive linemen, who bounced back from a poor performance against the Utes to limit the Sun Devils to one sack and zero hurries. Browning is one of the nation’s most surgical passers when he’s afforded a clean pocket, and his stellar numbers on the evening — 15 completions on 22 attempts, 202 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers — are a direct reflection of the time and space that his blockers afforded him to operate.
Finally, I have to mention the play of Washington’s tight ends, particularly Cade Otton (three catches, 40 yards and a touchdown) and Drew Sample (two catches for 24 yards). The Huskies have gotten precious little receiving production out of the position this year with Hunter Bryant sidelined, and it’s a welcome development to see those two players take the next step as bona fide weapons in the receiving game.
Rushing Defense: B+
The Huskies gave up a season-high 164 rushing yards to the Sun Devils, but it’s hard to grade them too negatively on that fact considering that UW’s game plan was clearly predicated upon ceding short runs in favor of neutralizing ASU’s explosiveness in the passing game. Even so, the Washington defense kept almost everything in front of them, with just four of Arizona State’s 40 runs going for 10 or more yards. That being said, ASU running back Eno Benjamin put together a nice performance of 26 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown, and converted five of six third- or fourth-down attempts.
Among the Huskies, Ben Burr-Kirven was the star of the show: The senior linebacker racked up 20 tackles and forced two fumbles (one of which he also recovered) en route to earning his second consecutive Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week distinction. Greg Gaines deserves a tip of the hat as well for eating up the blocks that made Burr-Kirven’s tackles possible.
Passing Defense: A
In Manny Wilkins’ first three games of the season, the senior quarterback completed 65.3 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns against one interception, and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt. Against the Huskies, he completed 62.9 percent of his passes for zero touchdowns or interceptions, and averaged 3.9 yards per attempt.
Likewise, preseason All American wide receiver N’Keal Harry averaged 7.0 catches for 105.0 yards per game along with four total touchdowns. On Saturday, he caught five passes for 20 yards and zero touchdowns, with the yardage total marking his lowest single-game output since playing at No. 11 Colorado during his true freshman season in 2016.
This isn’t a case of the box score looking worse than it played out on the field. The Huskies faced a veteran quarterback and a likely candidate to become the first wide receiver to be selected in next year’s NFL Draft, and effectively neutralized their impacts on the game. The Sun Devils completed just one single pass longer than 12 yards — that being a play-action tunnel screen to Brandon Aiyuk that went for 20 yards during ASU’s fourth-quarter scoring drive. It wasn’t the flashiest performance by Washington, as the Huskies didn’t record a sack or interception, but it was undeniably effective and demonstrative of the fact that UW’s secondary is arguably the best in the nation.
Special Teams: B
With all due respect to Washington’s backup punter, the gap between Race Porter and Joel Whitford is roughly the size of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Huskies are undoubtedly in a better position with Whitford on the field than they are without him. In addition to one 46-yard punt that gave ASU the ball at their own 10-yard line, Whitford’s distance punts went for 55 and 47 yards, though the latter breathed new life into the Sun Devils when N’Keal Harry broke no fewer than four tackles en route to a 42-yard return (the longest UW has allowed since Jamal Morrow ripped off a 64-yarder in the 2016 Apple Cup) that presaged a late Manny Wilkins touchdown.
Peyton Henry continues to be Mr. Reliable, nailing two field goal attempts from 26 and 29 yards, as well as hitting all three of his extra-point attempts. (On the year, he’s hit six out of seven field goals, with his only miss being a 40-yarder against Auburn, and all 13 PATs.) Finally, Myles Gaskin and Aaron Fuller had pedestrian outputs on their one kickoff and two punt returns, respectively, returning them an average of 19.0 and 4.5 yards.
The game began about as poorly as you can imagine for the Huskies, with Andre Baccellia throwing an interception to Chase Lucas on a double-pass trick play that ASU came nowhere close to biting on. The Sun Devils turned the short field to their advantage, scoring on a touchdown on the ensuing drive and giving themselves a 7–0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
That disastrous play turned out to be the only major hurdle the Huskies faced all day, as the team responded well to the early deficit and regained a lead they would not again surrender by the end of the first quarter.
Perhaps the best example of effective coaching on display Saturday was the play of Jake Browning in the face of ASU’s pass rushers and pressure packages. Against Utah, Browning was (rightly) maligned for his panicked retreats and pass attempts in the face of oncoming blitzes; on Saturday, he was like an entirely different player, stepping up into the pocket and escaping laterally in order to hit receivers in open space or in one-on-one coverage. Likewise, the offensive line clearly took to their coaching following the Utah game, and seemed to have many fewer assignment errors against Arizona State than they did a week prior.
Aside from the game-opening interception*, the Dawgs got off to a fast start offensively, scoring on three of their first four drives and generally forcing Herm Edwards to play from behind and try to go score-for-score. Against the stingy Huskies defense, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Finally, Washington continued its trend of improving its performance with regard to penalties, drawing three flags for a total of 30 yards. By comparison, the Sun Devils were penalized seven times for 72 yards.
What overall grade do you give the Huskies for their performance against the Sun Devils?
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