“There’s nothing so rare in college football as a truly even matchup between teams with legitimate aspirations of competing for a national title, which explains why tomorrow’s game between Washington and Auburn feels so momentous.”
So I wrote just 10 weeks ago on the eve of the Chick-Fil-A kickoff game, when the Washington Huskies hoped to vault themselves into the inside track to the College Football Playoff and mark a special season in Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin’s senior year. Instead, the Dawgs now own three losses on the season and have dropped from the AP poll for the first time since the final week of 2015.
Where did it all go wrong?
In many ways, Saturday’s ugly, inexcusable loss to the California Golden Bears was a microcosm of everything that’s made Washington’s 2018 campaign such a frustrating one. A splendid defensive effort was wasted entirely by an impotent offense that prominently features wide receivers who share zero sense of chemistry with their quarterback, along with surrender-cobra-inducing special teams play that almost certainly goaded more than a few fans into chucking their remote controls across the room.
Rushing Offense: F
With Myles Gaskin sitting out for the second consecutive game, Washington leaned on Kamari Pleasant (12 carries for 62 yards), Sean McGrew (7 for 20) and Salvon Ahmed (8 for -2) to carry the rock. They were almost wholly ineffective in doing so, averaging 3.0 yards per attempt. Things were even worse in the red zone, as the Huskies gained four yards on as many carries in their two (!!!) trips inside Cal’s 20-yard line.
The Golden Bears absolutely owned the line of scrimmage against Washington, earning eight tackles for loss (more than any team they’ve played aside from Oregon State). Sure, the Huskies are down to their third- and fourth-string left tackles, which is a valid reason to expect some difficulties against one of the conference’s better defensive lines. But UW’s complete inability to establish any sort of rhythm on the ground is directly reflected in the fact that after their game-opening touchdown, the Washington offense didn’t conduct a single drive that lasted longer than six plays.
Passing Offense: F
Jake Browning played far from his potential Saturday, to be sure. But do you know who else failed to rise to the occasion? Aaron Fuller. Henry Roberts. Kaleb McGary. Nick Harris. Jake Haener. Bush Hamdan, perhaps most of all. (More on him in a minute.) And Chris Petersen’s maverick decision (there’s a phrase I bet has never been written before in a negative context) to abandon his four-year starting quarterback in the hopes of doing something — anything — to give the offense a spark backfired in an entirely predictable fashion when Haener threw a pick-six that gave the Bears the game’s deciding points.
On the stat sheet, Browning is marked as being responsible for one interception. Truth be told, the credit for that interception belongs to Aaron Fuller, who simply gave up on the play on the assumption that Browning was throwing it into the stands. But Browning was also bailed out on a panicked throw on third-and-goal during Washington’s final drive of the day that absolutely should have been secured by Ashtyn Davis, and was instead simply dropped.
As for Haener, Dawg fans ought to be less upset with his performance than they are with the circumstances that led to his insertion into the game in the first place. He didn’t seem to have adequate notice that he’d be playing meaningful minutes, and consequently performed like someone shocked to find himself on the field. Haener missed his first pass to an open Andre Baccellia, short-hopping the ball by a good five yards. The very next play, he was forced to burn a critical second-half timeout when he couldn’t get the snap off in time. And his next pass on third-and-eight … well, you probably don’t need me to reiterate what Cal’s defense did with that one.
Looking to the stat sheet, Browning completed 11 of 21 attempts for 148 yards, a touchdown and a pick, while Haener went one-for-four, good for 11 yards and the pick-six. Ty Jones (three catches for 50 yards and the TD) and Andre Baccellia (four for 40) were the only players with multiple receptions on the day. Worst of all, Cade Otton and Aaron Fuller had critical drops that kept the offense from moving the chains and extending drives.
Rushing Defense: A-
Patrick Laird came into Saturday’s game averaging 4.8 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns in his last two games; against the Huskies, he tallied 83 yards on 23 rushes (3.8 yards per attempt) and didn’t sniff the end zone. As usual, Ben Burr-Kirven led the team in tackles with 14; his 122 total on the season marks the best single-player performance in FBS, and it’s not hard to see why he’s a candidate to be a special teams demon at the NFL level. Even better, the Washington defense allowed just two designed runs for 10 or more yards, the longest of which went for 14.
Unfortunately, the ineptitude of Washington’s offense forced the defense into a position of needing to make one last stop fourth-quarter stop for a chance to win; instead, Cal gained positive yardage on every play of the drive, and converted two first-downs en route to bleeding to clock to victory.
That last drive aside, Greg Gaines had a standout 10-tackle performance, tying his career high, and included two tackles for loss. Tevis Bartlett added seven tackles to his own resume, as did Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh. Altogether, Washington’s nine TFLs (coming courtesy of Ben Burr-Kirven, Gaines, Ryan Bowman, Jaylen Johnson, Levi Onwuzurike, Byron Murphy and Keith Taylor) represented the team’s best statistical performance of the season.
Passing Defense: A-
There’s not much to say negatively about a defense that limits the opponent to 151 yards on 24 attempts (6.3 yards per attempt), and keeps them from finding the end zone. That’s even more the case considering that Keith Taylor was stepping up to fill the starting role of Jordan Miller, who was held out due to injury. About the only critique that comes to mind is that they struggled to create havoc (as they have all season), breaking up five passes but failing to pressure the quarterback a single time, and that they allowed Chase Garbers to pick up a pair of third-down conversions on scrambles of eight and 13 yards.
While Burr-Kirven, Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson and Levi Onwuzurike each earned a single sack on the day, it’s telling that the team’s leading sack master remains safety Taylor Rapp, who has four on the year. Washington’s inability to develop a consistent pass rusher has been the albatross that’s held back this year’s defense from becoming elite, and it seems foolhardy to think that one will emerge in the closing weeks of the season. That could spell disaster when the Huskies take on Mike Leach’s air raid in the Apple Cup in a few weeks.
Special Teams: C-
At this point, Washington needs to either find a kicker who can boot it out of the end zone, or start intentionally kicking it out of bounds and giving opponents the ball at the 40-yard line. Peyton Henry had three kickoffs on the day, one for a touchback; on the other two, Ashtyn Davis returned the ball for 21 and 55 yards, giving the Golden Bears possession at their own 21- and Washington’s 42-yard line, respectively. Washington’s three opponent kickoff returns of 40 yards or more is tied for dead last in the conference, and ranks 122nd nationally, better only than Indiana.
Aaron Fuller had a beautiful punt return for 28 yards in the fourth quarter that could (should?) have set up the Washington offense for a game-winning touchdown, and Peyton Henry made a chip-shot field goal and his one PAT. And Joel Whitford was instrumental in helping Washington win the field position battle, booting his five punts an average of 45.8 yards.
I defy you to name one thing that the offensive coaching staff did in this game that can be tallied in the ‘positive’ column. From adequately preparing players for the challenges they would face, to offensive play calling, to in-game adjustments, to benching a four-year starting quarterback for no easily explained reason, everything Chris Petersen and Bush Hamdan touched Saturday became an unmitigated disaster.
Certainly, Jimmy Lake, Pete Kwiatkowski, Bob Gregory and Ikaika Malloe did their jobs on the defensive side of the ball. Any game in which you go on the road against a conference opponent and hold their offense to two field goals is almost by definition a magnificent performance. Unfortunately, their success Saturday just throws into that much sharper of a relief the utter failure of Washington’s offensive coordinator and head coach to do their jobs.
Chris Petersen’s decision to kick a field goal instead of going for a game-winning touchdown on what turned out to be Washington’s final drive was a terrible decision, and not just in retrospect. It was clearly the wrong decision at the time. The Huskies offense had struggled to move the ball all day, and when Petersen found himself at fourth-and-goal, nine yards away from the go-ahead points with under five minutes left to play, he opted to go conservative in the misbegotten hope that Jake Browning or Jake Haener or someone, anyone at all would show a miraculous ability to get the offense back into field goal range. Was it particularly likely that Washington would have gotten a touchdown on that fourth-down play? No. But it’s even more unlikely to think that the Huskies’ dumpster fire of an offense would come up with a clutch drive at the end of the game when they’d spent all afternoon looking like a junior varsity squad whose players are only there because Dad told them they can’t play any more Fortnite unless they get off their asses and go outside.
What overall grade do you give the Huskies for their performance against the Golden Bears?
17 votes total