The Washington Huskies and their fans have long prided themselves on dominant, take-no-quarter defenses that make opponents pay dearly for every mistake they commit. In that regard, Friday’s 10-3 victory over the Utah Utes in the Pac-12 championship game was a resounding success, delivering the Dawgs their first berth in the Rose Bowl since the 2000 season and securing Chris Petersen’s second conference championship in three years. And while the offense’s performance clearly left much to be desired — what game lacking an offensive touchdown wouldn’t? — UW’s superb time-of-possession advantage (38:32 for the Huskies, compared to 21:28 for the Utes) allowed the Dawgs to bleed to clock dry while compelling Utah to force plays that simply weren’t there, resulting in turnovers and poor field position that severely limited their scoring opportunities.
Rushing Offense: B
Myles Gaskin (23 carries for 71 yards) and Salvon Ahmed (eight for 28) did not have statistically great performances Friday, but don’t let the numbers fools you: Behind a smothering defensive performance, Washington’s ground game is the second-most important reason that the Huskies won the conference championship. At 101.8 yards per game, Utah’s rushing defense leads the Pac-12 and ranks No. 5 in the nation, and it’s true that the Huskies found little success in the red zone, tallying two carries for just eight yards on their one trip inside the Utah 20.
But with nothing more than a one-score lead throughout the game, Washington managed to make the game clock their 12th man, particularly on a beautiful 17-play drive that spanned the end of the third quarter to 5:10 remaining in the fourth. During that sequence, Gaskin and Ahmed picked up 23 yards and two first-downs on seven carries, which helped drain an important 10:03 off the clock and gave the Huskies defense a needed break on the sidelines.
Passing Offense: B-
It seems fitting that the best highlight I could find for the passing game is a fourth-down scramble, rather than a completed pass. Even with Hunter Bryant and Trey Adams playing at what seems to be close to their full ability, the Washington passing attack struggled to get much going against the ferocious Utah defense. Browning averaged 5.7 yards on 33 pass attempts, and was intercepted once on a ball that Ty Jones should have caught but instead juggled into the arms of the waiting Ute defenders. (Though to be fair, Utah dropped at least two poorly thrown passes that should have been interceptions.) Browning’s 105.2 passer rating was his lowest since last year’s loss to Arizona State, and Friday’s game marked just the second time in the last 14 games that he’s been denied a touchdown pass.
On the other hand, while Browning struggled early in the game, he played his best football when it mattered the most in the second half. From midway through the third quarter until the end of the game, he completed 13 of 15 throws for 93 yards and four first-downs, and picked up another two first-downs on scrambles. That efficiency is a huge reason why the Dawgs were able to play keep-away with the football, and deny the Utes valuable time to try to mount a comeback.
Among the receiving corps, Andre Baccellia led the team with eight receptions for 65 yards, while he, Hunter Bryant, Aaron Fuller and Drew Sample each added receptions of 15 yards or longer. Meanwhile, the offensive line allowed Utah just one sack (they averaged 2.8 per game) and three quarterback hurries, while Kaleb McGary drew the passing game’s only flag for a holding penalty.
Rushing Defense: A
Any game that is a defensive struggle inevitably comes down to which team can more consistently win the battle in the trenches, and to that end, Washington’s front seven played extraordinarily well. Armand Shyne found little room to run against the Washington defensive front, picking up 37 yards on 11 carries (his longest carry went for seven yards), while the Washington defense tallied seven tackles for loss. Ben Burr-Kirven extended his streak of double-digit tackles to eight games, coming up with 10 against the Utes, while Ryan Bowman, Greg Gaines and Tevis Bartlett joined Jordan Miller, Taylor Rapp, Myles Bryant and Keith Taylor in adding to Washington’s tackle-for-loss column. Perhaps most impressive is that Utah picked up just two first-downs on designed run plays, with one coming on a third-and-one conversion.
Passing Defense: A+
Byron Murphy was the best player on the field Friday, and that claim isn’t a particularly debatable one. In addition to scoring the game’s only touchdown (and Washington’s first defensive or special teams score of the year), Murphy snagged two interceptions, earned a tackle and broke up Jason Shelley’s fourth-down pass attempt with 27 seconds remaining to play. (It’s not pass interference if it doesn’t get called, right?) Finally, per the fine people over at Pro Football Focus, Murphy also didn’t allow a reception on five targets.
Of course, the rest of the defense performed at nearly as high of a standard, with Jordan Miller making an interception of his own immediately after getting flagged for a defensive holding penalty, and Myles Bryant, Greg Gaines and Taylor Rapp contributing to Washington’s two sacks on the evening. All told, Jason Shelley averaged 5.1 yards on 27 pass attempts, and completed just two throws for 15 yards or longer.
Special Teams: C-
Chris Petersen’s total lack of faith in his field goal unit was laid bare early Friday night, as the Huskies opted to go for it on fourth down from the Utah 23-yard line on the very first drive of the game. Later, the Dawgs attempted additional fourth-down plays from scrimmage from the Utah 27, 31, and 32-yard lines rather than attempt longer-than-chip-shot field goals, which seems to have been the correct decision considering that the Utes blocked Washington’s longest attempt of the night, a 38-yarder snapped from the Utah 21. Peyton Henry did make a 29-yarder to give the Huskies an early 3-0 lead late in the second quarter, but the utter ineptitude of Washington’s field goal unit this year has been painfully visible all season, and nothing we saw Friday suggests that it will change anytime soon.
Following Byron Murphy’s game-changing pick-six (as well as an unsportsmanlike penalty against him that affected the ensuing kickoff), the Huskies allowed Demari Simpkins to field the ball at the 27 and return it all the way to the 42, giving the Utes their best starting field position of the night. Thankfully, Jordan Miller’s interception bailed them out, and nothing truly disastrous came of the poor kickoff coverage. Meanwhile, punter Joel Whitford acquitted himself well: He sent his one distance punt 44 yards, while his punts to pin the Utes deep in their territory gave them the ball at the 10- and 7-yard lines.
Unlike some moron who thought the game would end in a 34-17 score, Washington’s coaches knew this game would be a low-scoring dog fight. To that end, Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski deserve all the credit in the world for putting a game plan together that kept the Utes offense from ever advancing past the Washington 36-yard line.
Likewise, Chris Petersen and Bush Hamdan put together an offensive game plan that minimized Washington’s weaknesses while maximizing its strengths against a tough Utah team. Hamdan called plays about as well as you possibly can in a game in which your team scores just three offensive points, and he seems to have recognized that Washington’s red zone offense (which has been subpar at best throughout 2018) would struggle mightily against the Utes, and therefore made ball control (and with it, the game clock) his No. 1 priority. Washington’s defense deserves credit for this win, of course, but Hamdan’s ability to put his offense into a position to control time of possession at a nearly two-to-one margin is a huge part of why the Huskies rather than the Utes were on the podium at the end of the game.
What overall grade do you give the Huskies for their performance against Utah?
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