It turns out this was a perfect time for the Huskies’ bye week.
Sure, it gives UW some time to rest and recover after a pair of blowout victories over Stanford and Oregon. But far more importantly, the bye week presents a chance to examine UW’s first six games and identify the Huskies’ top performers from the first half of the season.
Jake Browning could not do what he’s been doing without excellent pass protection, which the Huskies have given him, or without excellent play by Washington’s receivers, which has also been provided.
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But there’s still no question that Browning was not only the star of UW’s first six games, but the premier offensive player in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country.
His statistics tell the story well enough: 104 completions in 144 attempts for a 72.2 completion percentage, tops in the country. Twenty-three touchdown passes, also tops in the country. A passing efficiency rating of 204.86, also tops in the country. He’s averaging 9.8 yards per completion, fourth-best in the country. He has also rushed for three touchdowns, he’s only thrown two interceptions, and his only significant, fourth-quarter playing time this season came against Arizona.
His deep balls are more accurate, evidenced by the three he threw for touchdowns in UW’s first game against Rutgers. He’s been crazy effective in the red-zone, leading UW to touhdowns on 85.71 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line, second-best in the country. Simply put, there is very little Browning hasn’t done right in the Huskies’ first six games.
Runners-up: John Ross III, WR (team-best 30 receptions for a team-best 371 yards and a nation-leading nine touchdowns, plus four carries for 55 yards and a touchdown); Myles Gaskin, RB (599 yards rushing, 5 TDs, 6.1 yards per carry)
This is a more difficult category, if only because the Huskies have had so many important contributors on this side of the ball.
Junior linebacker Azeem Victor leads the team in tackles. Junior linebacker Keishawn Bierria is second in tackles and leads the country with five fumble recoveries. Senior defensive end Joe Mathis is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (7.5) and leads the team in sacks (5.0). Sophomore defensive tackle Greg Gaines also has 7.5 tackles for loss, to go along with 3.5 sacks. Senior linebacker Psalm Wooching has 4.5 sacks. Sophomore tackle Vita Vea has 4.5 sacks. Elijah Qualls has four tackles for loss and two sacks. Five different players have intercepted exactly one pass. Sidney Jones, a potential All-American cornerback, has been targeted only nine times in six games, effectively eliminating an entire portion of the field for opposing quarterbacks.
And that’s kind of what the Huskies hope for -- that their defense is so strong as a unit that it’s difficult to identify a single player, or even a single position group, that stands out above the rest.
But if you combine the “eye test” with the numbers, Bierria’s name is the one that continues to stick out. He’s always around the ball, he’s a violent hitter, and, of course, those five fumble recoveries are hard to ignore.
Runners up: All of the aforementioned players.
There are a few candidates here, too -- Browning among them -- but I’ll go with UW’s top receiver.
You already knew Ross was fast, and that he would be one of UW’s most important offensive weapons. But after sitting out last season following surgery to repair a torn ACL, he has returned as more than just a big-play threat.
His 30 receptions in six games this season are nearly as many as he had in his first two seasons combined (16 in 2013, 17 in 2014) and his 11 total touchdowns this year (nine receiving, one rushing and one on a kickoff return) are two more than he had in his first two seasons combined.
Ross is a much sharper route-runner and a far more reliable pass-catcher. He has been particularly impressive in the red zone, breaking inside for touchdown catches on slant routes, or turning outside leverage into an easy touchdown catch on a fade route. When defenses respect his speed and give him cushion, Browning does a good job finding him on intermediate routes, or easy throws near the sideline. When defenses run man coverage at him, he runs past them.
Runners up: Lavon Coleman, RB (44 carries, 395 yards, 2 TDs, 9.0 yards per carry); Psalm Wooching, LB (19 tackles, 4.5 sacks); Browning; Dante Pettis, WR (23 catches, 320 yards, 6 TDs)
That the Huskies haven’t had to rely on many first-year players is a pretty good indicator of where they are as a program. Only five have played.
The best, I think, has been safety Taylor Rapp, who has played in every game and made his first career start against Portland State. Coaches say he is already one of the team’s surest tacklers -- he has 15 tackles so far -- and they like what he does on special teams, too.
Freshman offensive guard Nick Harris has also seen a bunch of playing time, as has freshman receiver Aaron Fuller, who has six receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown.
MOST IMPORTANT STATISTIC
There are a lot of them, on both sides of the ball. But I’ll go with UW’s 24 sacks (tied for second-most nationally) as most impressive, particularly because the Huskies almost never blitz, and have been able to pressure the quarterback as well as any team in the country with only four or five rushers.
If there was a concern about this UW defense coming into the season, it was how well the Huskies would be able to rush the passer after losing outside linebackers Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, the two players who led the team in sacks a year ago with 8.0 and 6.0, respectively. Through six games, the players who replaced those two in the starting lineup -- Mathis and Wooching -- have combined for 9.5 sacks, and the Huskies are getting consistent pressure from Qualls, Gaines and Vea up front.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAY
The Huskies have played only one game in which the outcome was ever in question: their 35-28 overtime victory at Arizona.
So, kind of by default, the season’s most important play must come from that game. I see three options here: Coleman’s 24-yard run on the first play of overtime to set UW up at the 1-yard line and immediately put the pressure on Arizona; Browning’s subsequent 4-yard touchdown pass to Pettis; and Jones’ breakup of Brandon Dawkins’ final, 4th-and-11 pass that sealed UW’s victory.
Since the Huskies squandered so many chances to put that game away, I’ll go with the play that finally, officially sealed victory: Jones’ breakup.
MOST IMPRESSIVE PLAY
There have been a few, but here are three candidates.
And this one:
I’m going with Pettis on this one, partially due to the difficulty of pulling in a one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone, and partially because he was being interfered with.
MOST MEMORABLE PLAY
I mean, what else could it be, right?