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Three Things We Learned: Arizona State

Some premature title talk, an OL collapse, and a bendy but not braky defense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 21 Arizona State at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. Hold Your Horses

Reports of Washington’s national championship hopes may have been premature…

If you just ignored Arizona State’s record this had all the makings of a trap game. Washington was coming off one of their biggest wins in years defeating rival Oregon in a top-ten tilt at the last second at home. They had the entire national media declaring them as contenders all week. Michael Penix Jr. was anointed as the heavy favorite for the Heisman trophy. Arizona State was coming off a bye week. And of course, there’s Washington’s recent history against the Sun Devils which is…not good.

Even taking all of that into account though I don’t think anyone saw Saturday coming. Washington should have had all the motivation they needed after being reminded that UW’s chances at a Pac-12 title were dashed based on an upset loss to a struggling ASU team last year.

Instead, Washington’s offense which had been unstoppable for the better part of 19 games was completely impotent. We’ll get more into the specifics of that coming up shortly but we reached a new low in offensive output under Kalen DeBoer. Husky fans watched the Penn State-Ohio State slugfest on Saturday morning thinking how Washington would’ve carved up either defense. Instead, there’s real evidence that the Huskies can not only be slowed down but stymied in their current state.

Washington is still undefeated at 7-0 (4-0). They’ve already banked a win against the team that looks like their biggest competition in the conference. USC is in free fall. Utah keeps winning but seemingly loses 2-3 starters every game and at some point that has to matter. Oregon State is very good but already has a loss before having to play UW or Oregon. The Huskies are still the odds-on favorite to make the Pac-12 title game.

At the same time, it’s difficult to see a team capable of a stinker like they played as nearly a four-touchdown favorite getting through the rest of the schedule unscathed. Maybe Penix was playing through an injury that will heal. Maybe the receivers and the offensive line will get healthy and this will be a blip in an otherwise sterling resume. But I’m not going to be looking ahead to a potential CFP berth now unless UW looks like their old selves each of the next 2 weeks.

2. An Offensive Offensive Line

It didn’t take a genius to get a sense for Arizona State’s defensive strategy on Saturday night. The Sun Devils sent relentless pressure up the middle trying to force Penix off his spot as well as disrupt Washington’s run game. ASU averaged 4.92 rushers per pass attempt which is by far the highest the Huskies have seen so far this year.

Penix finished just 8/18 for 87 yards with an interception when blitzed according to Pro Football Focus for 4.8 yards per attempt. Coming into this game Penix had completed 75% of his passes for 11.2 yards per attempt when blitzed as he has been good at getting rid of the ball just before defenders arrived.

He still got rid of the ball before pressure could get home. Arizona State only had 1 QB hit all night and it came late and resulted in a targeting penalty and an ejection. But Penix’s throws were coming out quicker than wanted and weren’t nearly as accurate as they have been in these situations this year.

A big reason for the change is that Washington’s line missed rushers all night letting them through without much resistance. The Huskies were already down starting center Matteo Mele and backup RG Julius Buelow. Early in the 1st half it appeared that new RG Geirean Hatchett either went down injured or was benched and UW shifted Parker Brailsford back to RG and moved Hatchett’s true freshman younger brother Landen to center.

It didn’t go well. Landen allowed multiple pressures up the middle on passing downs and there also were often defenders knifing into the backfield on run plays through the center of the offensive line. Geirean came back into the game to start the 2nd half but quickly gave way to Landen again. We’ll see what DeBoer or Grubb say later today but it seemed likely that Geirean was banged up and tried to get back in the game after halftime but couldn’t play through it. Both Hatchett brothers finished with well below average pass blocking grades from PFF.

Washington isn’t going to win the Pac-12 without a much better effort from their offensive line and Penix reacting better to pressure. Getting back safety valve Jalen McMillan would be a big help. So would better play calling. The Huskies moved the pocket way more in the 2nd half than they have at any time in the DeBoer era to try to negate the pressure up the middle. On UW’s last offensive drive they seemed to find success with quick outs against big cushions from the DBs that were gaining 8+ yards a pop.

There were also perplexing play calls such as the end around to Ja’Lynn Polk into the boundary on 3rd and 10 and the Philly Special on the 2-point conversion attempt. It wasn’t Ryan Grubb’s finest hour and realistically it took poor play from almost every part of the offense to result in such a terrible output.

3. Making A Stand (or 7)

All of last season it seemed that the Husky defense was being propped up by Michael Penix Jr. and the offense as Washington won game after game late in the year. On Saturday we got to see what happened when the defense was asked to drag the offense to a victory.

Arizona State ended up with 8 drives in Husky territory and came away with just 7 points. That is the bendiest but don’t breakiest defensive performance you are ever going to see.

Part of that is because Arizona State was able to move the ball effectively on the ground all night. The Sun Devils averaged 0.22 EPA per rush which ranks in the 82nd percentile of all games. Washington struggled to bring down Bucky Irving against Oregon but also made ASU RB Cameron Skattebo look like he was covered in pig grease for much of the night. Skattebo finished with 7 missed tackles forced on just 11 carries and Washington missed a total of 16 tackles for another poor performance in that regard.

Still, the Huskies continue to have not allowed a single rush of 20+ yards this season as they limited explosive plays. Arizona State’s success rate of 38% was below average in part because the Husky pass defense came to play.

Kenny Dillingham made it an essential part of the ASU gameplan to challenge Husky CB Elijah Jackson along the sideline with 6’4 receiver Troy Omeire. Washington decisively won the matchup as Omeire caught just 1 of his 7 targets for 9 yards. Jackson played his best game of the season allowing just 2 catches against him for 4 yards plus blocking a field goal.

The play of the game of course came from Mishael Powell who earned his second interception of the season and returned it 89 yards for Washington’s only touchdown of the game. All told, Washington’s primary 3 CBs (add in Jabbar Muhammad) allowed a combined 33 yards in coverage.

Their performance was all the more impressive when you factor in that the one part of the defense that didn’t show up was the Husky pass rush. It was clearly part of the gameplan for QB Trenton Bourguet to get rid of the ball early but it’s still a black mark for Washington that they managed 0 sacks against ASU’s patchwork offensive line. PFF credited Bralen Trice with 6 pressures and 3 QB hits but no one else made much of an impact.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Washington’s defense to consistently carry the day. But between last week against Oregon and this week against ASU (despite being without Tuli Letuligasenoa) it feels like this defense has a knack for coming up with a big play when it is needed most. Most of the time for this team that’s going to be enough.