Welcome to the first installment of the good, the bad, and the unknown. There was quite a bit of good and bad in the Huskies’ close 21-16 loss against Auburn last Saturday, and there a few unknowns for the Huskies heading into Week 2 and beyond on. Let’s dive in.
The Passing Game: If you were like me, one of your biggest concerns coming into this season was the passing game. I doubted whether the Huskies’ receivers would be able to create space and get open. They did just that, finishing the game with 270 yards and a touchdown as a position group. (Drew Sample also recorded 2 catches for 26 yards.) Aaron Fuller and Ty Jones did a particularly nice job of getting open and were consistent targets all game, and Quinten Pounds’s sole catch was a spectacular one-handed grab in the end zone. The Huskies’ drive leading up that score was particularly encouraging, as Browning completed four straight passes to four different receivers, culminating in Pounds’s aforementioned touchdown catch. It’s just one game, but it was a strong showing and one that should give Huskies fans more optimism about the passing game going forward.
The emergence of Aaron Fuller and Ty Jones: Okay, is this cheating? Maybe, since it is tied into the passing game. But I felt that the two receivers deserved a specific bullet point. Fuller finished the game with 7 receptions for 135 yards, while Jones added 3 catches for 77 yards. Fuller looked the part of a true number one receiver, while Jones showed flashes of his potential by coming away with multiple highly contested catches. It wasn’t a flawless performance for either player. Jones dropped a heavily contested touchdown pass and Fuller dropped a pass that was a bit high late in the fourth quarter, but they showed signs of becoming a dynamic duo.
Browning’s arm atrength: Browning’s arm strength has been an off-and-on cause for anxiety to Huskies fans dating back to the end of the 2016 season. This was the first game in a long time that it seemed like Browning was able to make any throw he wanted to, putting up a few beautiful back shoulder throws to Ty Jones and Aaron Fuller, as well as a beautiful touchdown pass to Pounds. Browning had far from a perfect game, but it was nice to see that his arm strength seemed to be back.
A great opportunity missed: This was a chance for the Huskies to make a statement on the national stage. They had a chance to go into the deep south and knock off a premier SEC program in Auburn. And give the Huskies credit, they battled and looked to be the superior team for the majority of the game, particularly in the second half. However, that makes the loss even harder to swallow. The Huskies had a chance to cement themselves as a college football playoff contender by adding a signature win to their resume. While not being eliminated entirely from the playoff picture, it stands to reason that the Huskies will now likely have to win out to make their second appearance in the CFP. Also, while the narrative around the game hasn’t been unbearable, the result reinforces the narrative that the Pac-12 is the weakest of the Power 5 conferences. Does that matter? I don’t know, but it certainly makes it annoying to follow college football on a week-to-week basis. It would’ve been nice to be able to prop this win up as an example against the existing narrative.
The Running Game: Coming into the season it seemed that the Huskies’ running game would be the strength of the offense, as senior running back Myles Gaskin decided to return for his senior season, and the Huskies were returning a veteran offensive line. Still, everyone knew it would be tough sledding up front against Auburn’s touted front seven, and that was before the news that Trey Adams was going to miss the game with a back injury. Still, the Huskies needed to win the battle in the trenches to give the offense the best chance to be productive. And while the big guys up front did a fairly good job of giving Jake Browning time to throw (the final play of the game excluded) they weren’t nearly as successful opening holes on the ground. The Huskies finished with just 102 yards on the ground for the game, and while both Gaskin and Ahmed did have a few long runs (25 yards for Gaskin, 22 yards for Ahmed) it was far from a consistent showing. The inability of the Huskies to successfully run the ball may have led to first year offensive coordinator’s Bush Hamdan’s decision to call two designed quarterback runs on third and goal. Speaking of which...
Red zone playcalling: Allow me to preface this by saying I’m not one to criticize playcalling on the Internet. Before you say it, allow me to say it for you: no, I don’t know more than the coaches; no, I’ve never been a football coach. No, I’m not qualified to run a middle school offense, much less a Pac-12 offense. That being said, I have to scratch my head as to why Bush Hamdan decided to call for two designed running plays for Jake Browning in third and goal situations. The first looked to be a designed QB draw that went nowhere. The second was an option look that ended in a turnover after Browning fumbled while attempting to pitch the ball to Gaskin. The option call was particularly perplexing considering how well Browning had been throwing the ball in the second half, and that kicker Peyton Henry had showed that he could be counted on to make short field goals (he badly missed a 40-yard field goal earlier in the game, however). It was an example of trying to get too cute with the playcalling, and ended up costing the Huskies dearly.
Turnover battle: The Huskies turned the ball over twice Saturday and didn’t force a takeaway. Browning threw a perplexing interception in the first quarter, and made an unfortunate error trying to pitch the ball to Myles Gaskin on a play that was doomed to fail. Those turnovers coupled with the fact that the Husky defense failed to come away with a turnover certainly hurt the Huskies’ chances to knock off Auburn.
Penalties: The Huskies finished the game with 10 penalties for 95 yards. While they had less than Auburn (12-125) it was certainly more than Chris Petersen would’ve liked to see, and something they will need to clean up going forward.
Trey Adams’s status: Okay, this one may not count as an unknown. As Adam Jude reported today, Adams will miss the majority of the season. Chris Petersen wasn’t happy with the fact that the story was reported before he had a chance to meet with Trey’s family and doctors, but he didn’t deny the report, either. So, the querstion becomes, will Adams be able to return this season? While junior Jared Hilbers did a nice job filling for Adams, it’s no doubt a significant blow for the Huskies.
College Football Playoff chances: The Huskies’ playoff chances took a hit last Saturday, but they should still be squarely in the hunt if they win the Pac-12. It certainly got harder as the Huskies have to run the table to truly be a factor, but they played well enough to stay in the discussion.
How will the Huskies respond in Week Two?: The Huskies have a showdown with Utah in Salt Lake City looming in Week Three, and a rematch with Arizona State—after last year’s disaster—in Week Four. In Week Two, though? FCS North Dakota. Will the Huskies come out focused and determined to take out their Week One frustrations on North Dakota, or will they get caught looking ahead to conference play?