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Three Things We Learned: Washington State

Undefeated is forever, playing with fire...again, and an offense stuck in neutral

Washington State v Washington Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

1. Last Men Standing

With the last regular season in Pac-12 history now concluded, we can say this as fact: the 2023 Washington Huskies are the only team to go undefeated in Pac-12 history. Not only that but it happened in a season when the Pac-12 was arguably the strongest top to bottom in its history and Washington didn’t get to play the team that finished in last place (proof of the first part of that statement comes from said last place team being ranked entering Pac-12 play).

The Dawgs concluded a 12-0 regular season with a way too close for anyone’s comfort 24-21 win in the Apple Cup. We’ll talk about the more frustrating elements of the game in a bit but for now, let it sink in that Washington completed the gauntlet.

The Huskies managed wins against 6 teams with winning records including consecutive games at USC, against Utah, and at Oregon State. Not to mention of course the Apple Cup to close it all out. Yes, those games were all close. And that may matter when it comes to projecting how Washington performs moving forward. They all count though and the record books will forever show the Huskies pulled off a feat no other team managed in the decade plus of this configuration of the conference’s existence.

2. Playing with Fire...Has No Consequences...Yet

Which calamity of errors would you prefer to discuss? Maybe it’s when the refs called a false start that would’ve forced a field goal just before halftime but instead we gave up a touchdown with 8 seconds remaining? Or when we got called for trying to jump over the line to block a field goal and the resulting penalty gave WSU new life to score another touchdown? Or when UW got in range for a 33-yard game winning field goal attempt and then threw 2 near interceptions and took a sack on the next 3 plays?

Listen. We didn’t learn anything. This team has at least 8 lives considering this is now 8 straight games they’ve won by 10 or fewer points. And as always there were just so many dumb decisions made which prevented what could’ve been an easy win. Don’t let the guy get behind you on 3rd and long with 15 seconds left (even if it took an incredible catch and throw) and there’s 4 extra points. Don’t commit the totally unnecessary leaping penalty. There’s 4 extra points. Don’t miss the 43-yard field goal earlier in the game. There’s 3 extra points.

The Cougars hade their fair share of similar moments. The roughing the passer call on the last drive seemed very weak but it was equally as weak as the late hit call on Ralen Goforth earlier in the game. They dropped a few inopportune passes as well and committed a slew of pre-snap penalties. Cam Ward took a dumb sack or three when he probably could’ve gotten rid of the ball. A holding call on their last drive negated a first down that would’ve put them almost in field goal range.

Washington has had so many opportunities in the back half of the year to pull away from opponents and just refuses to do it. The offense has been handed the ball back with a 2-7 point lead 24 times since the start of the Oregon game. That’s a situation where the Huskies can definitively take a 2-score lead and start to really pressure the opponent if they score a touchdown. The Dawgs are just 8/24 in those moments. The Huskies were 6/7 through the first 5 games of the season.

The only question remaining for this team is whether they just always play at the level of their opponent and if a rematch with Oregon will reignite some of the fire that seems to have gone dormant. We want Washington to play with fire, not play with fire. Got that straight? Good.

3. The Middle Road Less Traveled

It has been easy to make excuses for Washington’s offense ever since they became the only team to score 37+ points on Oregon’s defense. The Arizona State game was rainy plus windy and they had several fumbles/tipped balls. Against Stanford, Penix clearly had the flu. Sure USC’s defense is bad but 52 points is impressive. Sure Utah’s defense is banged up but 35 points against the Utes is impressive. They once again played in a monsoon last week in Corvallis.

This week though there should’ve been no excuses. The Cougars’ defense had given up 38+ points in 4 of their last 6 games. There was hardly a hint of a breeze on Montlake on Saturday night and it was a perfectly clear bluebird day. Washington’s offense finally seemed to get Jalen McMillan integrated back into the offense. It was the closest they’ve been to 100% since the Michigan State game.

And yet everything seemed like pulling teeth. Ja’Lynn Polk has now gone a full 8 quarters without a catch and he dropped what should’ve been an easy first down on the final drive of the game. McMillan caught a few early short passes but then disappeared from the offense again. Dillon Johnson averaged 4 yards per carry and the line too often got stuffed in short yardage situations.

For the second consecutive week the only play that seemed to work was throwing it to Odunze on the outside and hoping for something good to happen. It looked at times though like Penix had gone to that well too often as the Cougs came away with several nice pass breakups.

Being at the game in person made it clear though that there were definitely open receivers in the middle of the field and Penix either couldn’t or wouldn’t throw to them. Penix only threw 3 of his 17 passes that went 10+ yards downfield between the numbers against Oregon State. Versus Washington State on Saturday afternoon it was 3 of 16 passes of that distance between the numbers. Washington’s only completion on those throws was the 40-yard TD to Odunze where the defender fell down and he was wide open.

There are myriad things about which you could say the phrase “Washington won’t beat Oregon if they keep doing...” But just deciding that you’re not going to throw the ball into the largest area of the field and allowing defenses to concentrate all their attention on throws to the sideline or underneath isn’t going to get it done against the Ducks.

Washington State decided to take that extra linebacker who might normally be sitting in zone coverage over the middle of the field and instead bring him to pressure Penix. The blitzed versus not blitzed numbers were actually fairly equal on Saturday but Penix once again did not handle pressure well at all going 2/7 for 27 yards pus taking the sack on the last play of the game before the field goal.