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Grading the Game: Oregon State at Washington Huskies

The 2018 version of the Huskies has been a contentious experience for fans. On one hand, nobody can deny that this is one of the most fundamentally sound and disciplined versions of the Huskies that fans have seen since the Don James era. The offensive and defensive efficiency rankings, when combined, are very strong (UW is #8 in the country in FEI). The overall performance by the team in discipline stats such as third down conversion, red zone defense, and penalties are in-line with each of the last three years if not better. It has been able to win several games when the outcome was in doubt going into the fourth quarter.

But therein lies the rub.

For a team with so many seniors, many fans were not expecting so many of those in doubt kinds of games. Poor special teams play, a lack of explosive offensive plays, a dearth of defensive plays behind the line of scrimmage and a turnover ratio that was negative until last weekend has fans wondering what exactly happened to the trajectory that this team was once on. That the Huskies will undoubtedly have their worst opponent third-down percentage since 2011 and their lowest cumulative point differential (probably) since Jake Browning’s freshman year are key indicators that have many fans uttering the dreaded “R-word” … as in “regression”.

In many ways, UW’s win over Oregon State was a microcosm for the season as a whole. There were moments of brilliance overshadowed by stretches of poor-to-middling play where an inferior opponent was allowed to play above their heads and better than their underlying talent-level. Behind it all a sense that this thing just feels so much harder than it ever has since Petersen hitched his wagon to a true freshman QB out of Folsom in 2014.

Let’s break it down.

Passing offense: B

Jake Browning haters … and frankly, I don’t understand them … can’t deny that this was one of Jake’s two best games of the season. The senior QB was throwing dimes all over the place, especially in that eventful first quarter.

Passes like this ….

… and like this …

… are flat-out NFL-caliber throws no matter what kind of evaluation you are making and no matter the play of the team defending them.

Browning’s accuracy (74%) and his willingness to push the ball down field are defining traits that certainly appeared against Oregon State. In fact, with his 10.5 yards per attempt on the game, Browning took over the PAC 12 lead in the one passing category most associated with winning football. Not surprising for the player who owns the PAC 12 record for all-time wins.

Whatever you think of this offense, Browning is not the defining problem. Especially when his pass protection is as robust as UW’s was against OSU’s over-matched defensive line.

Washington’s receiving corps, however, is another issue altogether. Of Browning’s 17 completions, just 6 were completed to receivers. Even more distressing is that only two of those went to one of the two “starters” in Aaron Fuller and Ty Jones. In both those cases, the receivers were covered … by Oregon State … and required tight placement by Browning.

Being covered isn’t necessarily a sin, but it does require receivers to be able to generate a little yard after catch action in order to move the chains consistently or ***gasp*** perhaps even generate an explosive play. UWs receivers, again, showed little ability to do any of that.

Fortunately, Washington’s tight end situation is looking up. Hunter Bryant and Cade Otton tied for the team lead with 55 yards receiving apiece. When UW doesn’t require these players to stay in to supplement the offensive line, they can do some damage as they showed on Saturday. Bryant’s emergence is particularly important as he is essentially a receiver when he’s on the field.

Pass Defense: A-

This game was a very solid effort for UW’s pass defense.

If you just look at the stats, the big things that pop out on defense are all related to pass defense. 2 of 14 third downs allowed. Less than 60% completion percentage. Just 6.4 yards per passing attempt. Two sacks leading to minus 33 yards (a season high).

(We’ve had so few sacks this year, I thought I’d put them both in here for you)

While the Huskies have yet to equal the heights that they reached during that five game stretch early in the season where they gave up zero touchdown passes and were allowing less than four yards per attempt, the production put up against OSU still represents excellent output with the third down performance being their best of the season to date.

Rush Offense: C-

Over the course of Myles Gaskin’s first three carries, he racked up 101 yards … albeit against one of the worst defenses in the nation. The Huskies offensive line was having a very easy time in getting leverage over the defense and creating edge lanes in that first quarter. It was so easy, in fact, that I guaranteed my wife that UW was going to have a bigger rushing game than what we saw in the 2016 PAC 12 championship when Washington rushed for 265 yards on 54 attempts.

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

For as brightly as UW’s run blocking shined in the first quarter, it was a dud in quarters two through four. Gaskin would finish the night with just 34 yards on the 15 carries (one of those being a nicely blocked wildcat) he took after those first three. There were two plays – a Sean McGrew 30 yard run in the 2nd and a 59 yard Salvon Ahmed scamper in the fourth – that accounted for 89 of UW’s 131 rushing yards after that first quarter. That’s not good.

If you are looking for a bright spot in all of this, it is hard to deny the high-level of play that we are seeing out of UW’s reserve running backs. Coach Keith Bhonapha has really done a great job in developing the whole unit and hasn’t had to depend on just one star. The play by both Ahmed and McGrew in this one is a stark reminder of that.

Rush Defense: C

It was not a great night for the UW rush defense though it was probably better than it felt while you were watching it. The stat line tells us that Oregon State rushed for 135 yards and a 3.8 ypc average. Those are not horrible numbers. The reason it felt bad was that Oregon State seemed to continuously get ahead of the sticks with their run game, in particular during that second half.

The stats bear it out to some degree. Washington recorded four TFLs on rushing plays for the game and (someone check me here) that three of those came in the first quarter. So while the Beavers didn’t average a big number on yards per attempt, most of their runs were in fact right around that four yard mark. There were neither a lot of losing plays or overtly big plays.

The linebackers played particularly poorly in this one, I thought. Both Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett appeared to struggle to keep themselves in their gaps and too often were tackling running backs from behind. OSU – and particularly RB Jermar Jefferson – deserve some credit for that. They did a good job of taking advantage of UW’s conservative three-man fronts and creating opportunities to get blockers up into the second level. Dedicating one blocker to BBK has kind of become the new “book” on the UW defense and it has been effective.

Nevertheless, UW can play better than what we saw on Saturday.

Special Teams: C

Raise your hand if your new favorite player is true freshman linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. I know mine is raised.

The walk-on out of Bishop Gorman (by way of Anchorage, Alaska), apparently, has been the talk of the locker room all season as UW assistants have been impressed with his hustle and his “it” factor during practice. As Chris Petersen told it during the post-game on Saturday, coaches have been looking for ways to get the kid into a game all season.

And wouldn’t you know that on his very first snap in a real game, Ulofoshio made a play. His forced fumble on a first quarter kickoff return by Trevon Bradford turned into six Husky points and earned him another kickoff. And… wouldn’t you know it … he made another play. While Jackson Sirmon was credited with UW’s second forced fumble, Ulofoshio was right in the middle of that one. He was a bright spot in what was otherwise a very dark evening for UW’s special teams.

On that subject, let’s put it this way: Another missed field goal and a 34 net yard average on UW punts is pretty much all you need to know about how things continue to decline on the Huskies special teams. Seven kickoffs with no touchbacks (that would be a zero % touchback percentage … not good) might give you a bit more context. The lost onside kick and the fourth quarter blocked punt were just icing on the cake.

Incidentally, UW has punted the ball 15 times over the last three weeks. There hasn’t been a three game stretch where UW has had to punt the ball that many times since they had 17 punts across WSU-Colorado-Alabama in 2016 (with nine of those coming against Alabama). Take that as you will.

The Grading Curve

I will say that these kinds of articles are tough to write because, by their nature, the performance of the individual units is often absconded by the context of the game. The truth of the matter is that UW got up to a big lead in the first quarter. The opposing head coach is a friend of the program. Key players like Trey Adams, Shane Bowman, DJ Beavers and Hunter Bryant were given ample playing time despite just coming back from injury. True freshmen like Sam Tamiani, MJ Tafisi, Jackson Sirmon and Dominique Hampton all took meaningful snaps.

Games like this are great opportunities to work things out without putting too much on tape for future opponents. These factors must be considered as one evaluates the performance as a whole, though they may not be satisfying reasons to fans who are eager to see more production and bigger plays.

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