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Three Things We Learned: California

Unfortunately more penalties, fortunately more interceptions, and a lot of new faces in the 4th quarter.

NCAA Football: California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

1. Disciplinary Hearing

Last week we saw Washington wrack up 11 penalties for 110 yards. Several times the only way that Michigan State was able to move the ball is if the Huskies helped them out by committing a penalty. And the only way they could stop the Dawgs was if UW was called for multiple penalties in the same series leading 2nd and 25 or so situations.

Things didn’t get better this week against California. Washington lost the penalty yards battle 83 to 10 as the Huskies were flagged another 9 times this week. That includes a facemask which negated a pick six, an offsides which gave Cal an automatic first down, a DPI to give a free first down, and targeting to extend a late drive.

The penalties on offense don’t seem to matter all that much for the Dawgs. Even when Washington has 1st and 20 it just feels like they’ll be able to get those yards back no matter what. As we saw against Michigan State, that isn’t always the case but it’s hard to worry about setbacks for Michael Penix and co. thus far.

It’s a different story for the defense. That unit is clearly improved for Washington but they aren’t the kind of dominant group that can afford to give away an extra first down in a drive and expect to get off the field without giving up any points.

The Huskies are up to 4th in SP+ based on their string of blowouts to open the season. Those include wins over the teams ranked 61, 63, 65, and 99. It’s impressive to bludgeon an average team. Washington though is going to have to end the season with 5 of 7 games against top-30 squads. If the Dawgs want to achieve their goals, which realistically should include a College Football Playoff berth at this point, then they can’t afford to make those kind of mistakes over and over.

2. Pick Off Attempts

Of course, the game couldn’t have gotten off to much better of a start. Under pressure from ZTF*, Cal QB Ben Finley threw it straight to Edefuan Ulofoshio who broke a tackle and ran it back to the end zone for a pick six. It was Washington’s first defensive score since Byron Murphy’s game-winner to beat Utah 10-3 in the Pac-12 championship game in 2018.

Defensive touchdowns haven’t been the only rarity. Last year, interceptions in general were few and far between. Safeties Asa Turner and Makell Esteen led the team with 2 but they somehow managed just 7 across a 13-game schedule. That hasn’t been a problem so far. Washington is now up to 7 interceptions after just 4 games and that number could/should have been 8 (plus another pick six) if Thad Dixon hadn’t committed a facemask penalty on his attempt. It was a penalty but based on the miscommunication between receiver and quarterback I think it would’ve been a pick six regardless.

We still haven’t played a team though with a truly elite passing game. Boise State had more of a dual threat at the position. Tulsa played their 2nd and 3rd string quarterbacks. Plus they’re Tulsa. Michigan State’s QB I think showed that he’s not ready for prime time and was benched in their next game. The combo of Finley and Jackson for Cal haven’t been very efficient this year with as many interceptions as touchdowns. That may not change though this weekend as Arizona may be on their backup quarterback as well.

When Oregon rolls into town on October 14th it will be a different story. Through 4 games PFF has only charted Nix with 1 turnover worthy play and he’s been sacked just 3 times. UW’s defense will need to continue to make havoc plays and create turnovers to keep it from being a game where the team with the ball last wins.

* There were quotes this week from ZTF that he was able to consistently jump Michigan State’s snap count which helped him to the sack/fumble that wasn’t. He clearly was doing the same thing to Arizona this week. The first time it allowed him to force the interception. Later in the game though he was called for offsides which extended a California drive. You can bet that opposing coaches are going to tell the refs to watch for it in the future and ZTF may need to take a half-step back before doing it if he wants to avoid penalties.

3. (New Girl Schmidt Voice) Youths

Coming into this week I would’ve thought that the Arizona State and Stanford games were the only ones where UW could afford to empty the benches for a large stretch. Instead, Washington opened up the floodgates on playing time in the 3rd and 4th quarters. The Huskies ended up playing 50 non-specialist, non-starters total including a total of 41 players getting at least one defensive snap.

Per Pro Football Focus, a total of 9 walk-ons played a combined 58 defensive snaps for the Huskies which partially explains the performance of the defense late in the game. We also saw quite a few true freshmen get in on the action. True freshman corner Leroy Bryant led the way on defense with 19 snaps and had a rough time being credited by PFF as missing a tackle and giving up 3 completions for 72 yards on 3 targets. Linebacker Deven Bryant played 15 snaps and wound up with 3 tackles.

We also saw 14 defensive snaps from edge rusher Jacob Lane which were very much an up and down affair. Lane had an impressive QB hurry which caused a throwaway. He also committed a targeting penalty on his one tackle attempt when he led with the crown of the helmet.

It was also a mixed bag for the freshmen on offense particularly with WR Rashid Williams. He committed a very unnecessary blindside block penalty on the 51-yard catch and run for fellow true freshman Tybo Rogers. It was right at the end of the run so didn’t negate the entire play but did set the offense back 15 yards. He made up for it though by securing his first two career catches later in the possession including one which went for a first down.

The offense featured a few more regular contributors out of their true freshmen. Running back Tybo Rogers appeared to move into the 3rd string role after his breakout last week as he was the 3rd back to carry the ball after Dillon Johnson and Will Nixon. OL Landen Hatchett also subbed in early and 28 snaps across the center and right guard spots. Finally, fellow freshman OL Zach Henning played 18 snaps at left guard to finish out the game.