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Three Things We Learned: USC Trojans

A breakout game from Dillon Johnson and the run game, more struggles in the secondary, and not a lot of help around the rest of CFB


1. The Defense Rests

Washington’s defense hasn’t exactly been a juggernaut this year. Everyone knows this. They also clearly have made strides over last season’s unit. Arizona State only managed 7 points against the Huskies and it looked like the unit had maybe found something. Then of course they gave up 33 points to a Stanford offense that has been dormant much of the season as the Cardinal finally picked up multiple explosive passing plays downfield. Which defense would show up against the #1 rated offense in the country per SP+?

Unsurprisingly, it was the bad one. Part of the explanation for the effort against Stanford was that the Huskies were down to their 4th string free safety with Asa Turner, Kamren Fabiculanen, and Vincent Nunley all out. Washington also was without their best interior defensive lineman, Tuli Letuligasenoa. There was optimism before the game when KamFab, Nunley, and Tuli all dressed. However Pro Football Focus charted that Tuli only played 13 snaps, Nunley played 12 snaps, and KamFab appeared for just a single play. Washington’s answer was to move Meesh Powell to free safety, slide Jabbar Muhammad to the slot, and start Thaddeus Dixon rather than just play Makell Esteen.

Maybe things would’ve been worse had Esteen played 60 snaps and everyone else kept their normal positions. Thad Dixon was PFF’s highest graded UW defensive player after recording 6 tackles with none missed plus giving up 3 catches for 52 yards and a TD across 41 coverage snaps. It’s hard to say though that the Husky defensive strategy worked out when they gave up 42 points through 3 quarters; even if they kept USC scoreless in the 4th.

The lack of a serious impact player in the middle of the defensive line continues to haunt the Huskies and pine for Tuli to get healthy to be the closest they have. Washington ended up with 23 pressures on Caleb Williams across 42 USC dropbacks. Averaging a pressure on every other snap should generally be good enough to shutdown an opposing passing attack. But there’s a reason Williams won the Heisman last year and he’s just too good at evading edge rushers when there’s space to step up in the pocket and juke guys. Williams had a ridiculous 5.31 seconds to throw when pressured due to his scrambling ability. The Huskies needed to collapse the pocket on the interior to have a chance to actually slow him down.

There’s an argument to make that USC’s scoreless 4th quarter was due in part to Caleb Williams being forced to run for his life on the majority of dropbacks even if those plays resulted in a gain. Eventually, he looked like he was running out of gas. But it’s hard to say that a gameplan that gave up 42 points was successful. Especially when the opponent finished with a 99th percentile success rate and 91st percentile explosive play rate.

2. Run, Dillon, Run

Everyone loves the deep ball. Having a dynamic passing attack in modern college football certainly feels impossible to stop at times. At the same time, there’s something extremely comforting about a dominant rushing attack. The game is about blocking and tackling and true dominance comes from a team being able to assert their will in the trenches and pick up yards in huge chunks.

There have very reasonably been question marks about whether the Huskies could do that when it matters. Washington has often found itself in 3rd/4th and short situations running fly sweeps or play action passes or running it up the middle for no gain. What would happen though against USC’s porous run defense?

It turns out that Dillon Johnson can answer the call when necessary. He had a career night with 256 rushing yards plus 4 touchdowns (and had a 5th taken away on Pac-12 refs calling a penalty against a guy who had his facemask ripped off). Johnson’s only 100+ yard rushing games in his career have now come in games against Oregon and USC. When the going gets tough, Washington has been able to rely upon Johnson. Except of course bizarrely against Arizona State.

Washington finished the game with 0.54 EPA per rush which ranks in the 98th percentile across all of college football. That’s to go with a 64% success rate which is a 99th percentile mark.

This doesn’t mean of course that Johnson is suddenly the best back in the Pac-12. USC’s run defense is horrendous. A large part of the big night from the Husky backfield was because of their incompetence. But it certainly feels a lot better to know that Washington can run the ball at will against a really terrible run defense than to see them get stymied yet again and rely entirely upon Penix’s left arm to bail them out.

3. Help Me...Help You

Obviously, the most important thing for UW’s Pac-12 Title and/or College Football Playoff hopes was that the Huskies take care of business on the road against USC. A loss would’ve made everything superfluous. It looked though like this might be a huge weekend of chaos around Washington though and make a path forward that much easier.

Ohio State trailed Rutgers 9-7 at halftime. Georgia trailed Missouri 13-10 at halftime. Texas’ defense faced 1st and goal in OT where a TD meant a loss. Florida State was tied 7-7 at halftime with Pitt. Alabama and LSU were tied well into the second half.

In the end, none of those underdogs were able to get the job done. Oklahoma was the only 1-loss or undefeated team to actually fall by losing at OSU after a no-call obvious DPI late in the game. Washington shouldn’t get leapfrogged in the CFP rankings based on what happened today but they had a chance to get some major help and it didn’t come.

There also wasn’t a lot of help coming from inside the Pac-12. Utah bounced back from their embarrassing effort against Oregon to turn Arizona State into a grease spot. Oregon State treated Colorado similarly for most of the game although without quite as much success on offense. That could reasonably be interpreted as either good news or bad news. Both of those teams winning means the Huskies aren’t likely to clinch anything until/unless they win the next two games. If Washington does win those games though then having each team boost the strength of schedule by winning helps for CFP goals.

Given all of that we have this shorthand view of the season:

Win out- 95%+ go to the CFP

3-0 regular season, loss in CCG- NY6 bowl, slim chance at CFP

2-1 regular season, win in CCG- NY6 bowl, reasonable chance at CFP

2-1 regular season, loss in CCG- NY6 bowl, no chance at CFP


1-2 regular season, loss to WSU- Appearance in CCG

1-2 regular season, loss to Utah or OSU- Likely appearance in CCG but depends on tiebreakers

0-3 regular season- Unlikely appearance in CCG