1. Under Pressure
It’s hard for an offensive line and quarterback to work more in tandem to prevent negative plays in the passing game than Michael Penix Jr. and his line did in the first 4 games of Washington’s season. Then came UCLA. After only one interception and zero sacks at home we saw the Huskies surrender two of each against the Bruins.
Per Pro Football Focus tracking Penix was pressured on 15 dropbacks on Friday night and while he did throw a pair of touchdowns passes the overall result still wasn’t pretty. Penix against pressure finished 6/13 for 51 yards with 2 TDs, 1 INT, and 2 sacks. His 36.4 PFF grade on those plays is worse than that of Dylan Morris when under pressure last year. Suffice it to say that for the first time all season Penix wasn’t able to handle the harassment.
In addition to the pressure put on him by the UCLA pass rush he also seemed to struggle with the mental pressure of being down in a game early. Both of Penix’s interceptions felt forced and came only a few plays (and in one instance exactly one play) after UCLA had just extended their lead in the first half. In the first few games Penix occasionally put balls in dangerous situations trusting his receivers to make plays in one-on-one coverage. What he hadn’t done until Friday was miss a lurking defender in a position to jump the ball.
I wrote in this column last week that Washington could still put up 40 points on an off-night as they did against Stanford and that was incredible. Well despite a legitimate off-night against UCLA he still managed to lead the offense to 32 points. Most of the time that should be good enough. And it’s why I’m not supremely worried about the offensive side of the ball despite this setback.
We’ve known for a while that Washington’s secondary was a mash unit. But with Jordan Perryman returning at one corner spot and so only 2/5 of the original starting secondary out due to injury there was hope for a resurgence. That hope got extinguished almost from the jump. Whenever Washington’s pass rush couldn’t get home, Dorian Thompson-Robinson destroyed the Huskies to the tune of 12.0 YPA with 3 TDs.
The biggest offender was 6th year senior safety Alex Cook who multiple times was unable to keep up in man coverage with his assignment. UCLA completed 5/5 passes for 93 yards and a TD when going after Cook. Fellow safety Kamren Fabiculanan and starting corner Julius Irvin also failed to force an incompletion while targeted. When combined with Cook’s stats that’s 60% of the secondary giving up a 14/14 for 230 yards and 2 TD stat line. Not ideal.
Redshirt freshman Davon Banks rotated in at corner and gave up a 15-yard TD plus committed an incredibly obvious late hit out of bounds penalty. True freshman corner Jaivion Green also played extensively and had the second lowest PFF grade of any Husky defender this week.
Washington’s struggles against the pass weren’t because they were constantly getting beat deep. DTR only had an average depth of target of 5.8 in this game (Penix was 7.4) and the Huskies missed 16 tackles. Players were in position to get stops and simply couldn’t get it done too often. UCLA only missed 2 tackles on Husky pass plays. We’ve seen enough this year to know it’s asking too much for UW to be a good tackling team but if they can even be average then it would go a long way.
If you’re looking for good news it’s that Jordan Perryman generally played at the level we expected coming into the season giving up 13 yards on 5 targets. It’s not for certain that Jacobe Covington could’ve played better than what UW has gotten at corner this season but his decision to transfer out after the spring certainly looks more and more like a blow.
3. The Road Less Traveled
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that home-field advantage can be a real thing even if it’s not in the most intimidating of environments. In 2020 the Dawgs played a 4-game season with all of them happening at Husky Stadium. Even the combo of JonDon and Jimmy Lake managed to go 3-1. Then last season the Huskies scraped out a 2-3 record on the road with the two wins coming over teams that finished a combined 3-15 in Pac-12 play. The last time Washington won a road game against a team that finished over 0.500 was in 2019 when they beat BYU who only went on to be 7-6.
Winning away from home is hard, especially when playing a good team. We may not know for a little while whether UCLA is “contend for a conference title” good or merely “has a great offense and on days where the defense happens to look competent they’re really tough to deal with” good. Regardless, being able to win those games is what separates a 25th ranked team from a 10th ranked team.
The little breaks you get at home don’t go your way on the road. In a completely hypothetical example the refs might take the result of the play, add on a penalty from during the play, and then also add on a late hit despite only one of those first 2 being allowed at the same time. Or again hypothetically they might see a player fall down in a blatant flop and then call unsportsmanlike conduct on the player standing next to them as they flop. Per gameonpaper, Washington faced a nearly 8 EPA deficit based on penalties in this game. Some of that may be on #Pac12Refs but the reality is that you have to expect that can happen on the road and play with even more composure than usual.
Washington’s schedule still sets up favorably for them. Winning in Tempe for a 1p kickoff when it’s a high of 94 degrees is not the easiest of tasks even against a 1-4 Sun Devils team that fired their coach a few weeks ago. Get past that though and the next road game is against a Cal team that very much looks like they don’t have the passing offense to take advantage of UW’s biggest weakness. The other 2 rivalry road games will definitely be challenges. But they’re likely to be the only remaining games where the Huskies might not be favored going in despite Friday’s loss. It’s possible to lose home games against Arizona, Oregon State, or Colorado but it’s likely none of those teams finish in the top-6 of the conference standings.
This may not be a Pac-12 title winning team in Kalen DeBoer’s first season. Despite this loss though there’s still reason to think the Huskies have what it takes to get back to their most wins in a season since 2018 before the Chris Petersen era took a sudden downturn and then abruptly ended.