Yesterday’s Washington Huskies loss to the Auburn Tigers by a final score of 21–16 was disappointing for any number of reasons, but one more than any other: It was another wasted opportunity for Chris Petersen’s team pull out a statement victory over a marquee opponent on the national stage. That being said, there were a great deal of positives on display for anyone who cared to look for them, from the defense holding Auburn to one second-half scoring drive to Aaron Fuller’s breakout game as Jake Browning’s go-to receiver. The question now, of course, is whether or not the Huskies have what it takes to overcome an opening-day loss and play well enough between now and December to stay in the hunt for a conference championship, and thus an argument for inclusion in the College Football Playoff.
Rushing Offense: C-
Huskies fans had good reason to suspect that Washington would have trouble running into the teeth of Auburn’s front seven, and those suspicions proved accurate Saturday when Myles Gaskin earned 75 yards on 17 carries, an average of 4.4 yards per attempt. (For comparison, his career average coming into Saturday was a robust 5.9.) Meanwhile, Salvon Ahmed didn’t get his first touch until nearly 20 minutes into the game, and finished the day with seven rushes for 36 yards.
Where the rushing game failed most notably, however, was in the red zone. The Auburn defense performed magnificently in those scenarios, holding the Huskies to negative-three yards on eight attempts, though Browning’s lost fumble on an ill-advised speed-option play (more on that in a minute) accounted for a whopping negative-17 yards on its own. Leave that one aside, and the Huskies offense still only procured 14 yards on seven rushes inside the Auburn 20-yard line — hardly a healthy indicator of success. Perhaps most importantly, the Dawgs didn’t score a rushing touchdown for the first time since last year’s season-opening win at Rutgers.
Passing Offense: B-
Much like they did during fall camp in last year, the Dawgs came into their season’s first game Saturday with an open question as to who would replace their most productive passer from the season prior. In 2017, Dante Pettis stepped up to fill the shoes of John Ross, and turned himself into a second-round NFL Draft pick. It’s too early to say affirmatively who will be 2018’s Pettis, but Aaron Fuller certainly looked the part of a No. 1 option by corralling seven catches for 135 yards, both career highs. Ty Jones and Quinten Pounds both deserve special mentions, too, for their momentum-shifting catches that led to Washington’s lone touchdown, coming on the team’s final drive of the first half.
On the downside, once Auburn started bracketing Fuller with a safety providing help over the top, the Dawgs were unable to adjust and find success in the short- and intermediate-passing game. In addition — and this is more of an aside than it is a negative — Browning didn’t connect with Gaskin or Ahmed as a check-down option or in the screen game, throwing incompletions on each of his three targets to his first-string running back.
As for the quarterback, Browning’s day was characterized by peaks and valleys: He completed 18 of 32 throws for 296 yards, one touchdown and one interception, the pick appearing to be the ugly product of a miscommunication with sophomore tight end Jacob Kizer, whom Browning seemed to expect to come back to the ball on a scramble drill. On the other hand, Browning showed good footwork and improved arm strength when he was afforded a rare clean pocket from which to throw, which made the absence of All-American-caliber left tackle Trey Adams all the more glaring.
Rushing Defense: B-
Outside of a few chunk plays that the Huskies defense yielded to the Tigers, the Washington front seven played well against the Auburn running game, holding their opponents to 147 yards and one touchdown on 45 carries (3.3 average). (It’s just unfortunate that the touchdown proved to be the game’s deciding score.) Greg Gaines looked every bit the capable replacement for Vita Vea, and Jaylen Johnson made his presence felt; one game into the season, he seems like an obvious candidate to become Washington’s most improved fifth-year senior.
Along the linebacking corps, Ben Burr-Kirven paced the team in tackles with 13, and DJ Beavers made a valuable contribution with eight solo tackles as well. In the red zone, Washington’s defense limited the Tigers to 28 yards on 10 rushing attempts, including the game’s decisive 10-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run by JaTarvious Whitlow.
Passing Defense: B-
First things first: Jarrett Stidham played himself one hell of a game. The former blue-chip recruit looked every bit the part of a star quarterback, standing tall in the pocket and delivering beautiful passes to his receivers on the plays his green offensive line was able to give him ample protection. And while Washington’s pass rushers found some success in pressuring him (two sacks courtesy of Ryan Bowman and Myles Bryant), neither did they win enough consistent one-on-one battles with his linemen to force him into uncomfortable spots or bad decisions, which is reflected in the zero interceptions (or turnover of any kind, for that matter) that the Dawgs generated.
In the secondary, Jordan Miller had a rough first game back from injury, losing a couple of key one-on-one matches that allowed the Tigers to make key first-down conversions and extend drives, but it seems premature to think that he won’t shake off the rust and be back to his old lockdown self by the time the Dawgs visit Salt Lake City in a couple of weeks.
Special Teams: B
In 2017, Tristan Vizcaino and Van Soderberg combined to give severe heartburn to Huskies fans everywhere; one game into 2018, and Peyton Henry seems, at minimum, to be a more reliable option. He banged three of four field goal attempts (one of which required a stroke of luck after banging off of the right-hand upright), and missed his longest attempt, a 40-yarder. Joel Whitford exited the game after a single punt due to some sort of preexisting injury, and Race Porter booted two kicks 43 and 36 yards to start the ensuing Auburn possessions at the 27- and 24-yard lines, respectively. Austin Joyner earns a special mention here, too, for a beautiful form tackle that limited Ryan Davis to one yard gained on the second of Porter’s punts.
In retrospect, it seems clear to me that Washington coming into this game ranked as the No. 6 team in the nation obscured for many fans a simple fact: that the Huskies were debuting first-time Power Five-level play callers at both of the coordinator positions. That fact became particularly evident on the offensive side of the ball, where the Huskies managed to score just three points in three second-half trips inside the Auburn 23-yard line. The speed-option fumble turnover on a play that began third-and-goal at the 3-yard line in particular is perhaps the most head-scratching play call I’ve seen from the Dawgs in the last three seasons — take all the time you want to explain, but I doubt I’ll ever see the wisdom of deciding your best chance to score on third down is to make your fourth-year pocket-passer starting quarterback try to outrun Auburn’s ferocious defensive line.
Another major concern has to be Washington’s tendency to yet again exhibit a slow start to a big game against a marquee opponent. It was an issue two year ago against USC, just as it was an issue last year against Penn State, and it’s hugely concerning that nine months of preparation wasn’t enough to keep that recurring problem from rearing its ugly head.
Finally, Dawg fans will have to hope that 10 penalties for 95 yards turns out to be the product of first-game jitters, and isn’t emblematic of how their games will be conducted for the rest of the year. (For reference, last year the Huskies averaged 4.2 penalties per game for 34.2 yards). Of course, when the overwhelming majority of your games are officiated by #Pac12Refs, anything is possible.
What overall grade do you give the Huskies for their performance against the Tigers?
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