Let’s go ahead and introduce a new day-after-game feature to the blog. “Three up, Three down,” will take a look at three positives and three negatives from each Huskies football game this season. With so many late kickoffs, it can be difficult to digest and relate everyone properly on tight deadline and without the benefit of any postgame insight. So this feature will ideally shed a little more light on some of the game’s bigger themes, while adding some needed perspective.
Getting to it:
1. Jake Browning showed some promise.
The Huskies’ offense was not good on Friday night. No doubt about that. But a lot of that had to do with an ineffective (read: nonexistent) running game (more on that later). Browning made several plays of which nobody on last season’s roster would have been capable, including a couple times when he evaded pressure and either scrambled for important yardage, or found an open receiver (I’m actually thinking of a play that was actually nullified by penalty – Browning’s 15-yard completion to Dante Pettis on 3rd-and-6 early in the fourth quarter that was wiped out when an official ruled that Pettis had stepped out of bounds before catching the ball).
The freshman has a long way to go, but that isn’t news. He took a bad sack on the final possession, and later spiked the ball when coach Chris Petersen wanted him to check with the sideline and run the clock a little more. And his numbers weren’t great, either: 20-for-35, 150 yards and an interception that could have easily been more costly than it was – though Boise State’s defense is obviously an experienced, skilled bunch.
But you can see why Browning was able to win the job as a freshman. He’s pretty poised in the pocket, he seems to make the right throw for the most part, and if UW can run the ball a little better to help him out, better days are surely ahead for Browning and the Huskies’ offense.
2. Led by Azeem Victor, Washington’s defense might not take that big of a step back, after all.
Victor, the Huskies’ third-year sophomore starting mike linebacker, was everywhere on Friday night. He led the team in tackles with 12.5 – 11 of which were solo, including a tackle for loss – and had a massive hit on a kickoff, too. His physical nature sets the tone for the middle of UW’s defense, and if he continues to play the way he did on Friday night, the Huskies might really have something there.
It did take a while for the Huskies to adjust to Boise State’s rushing attack. Third-year sophomore nose tackle Elijah Qualls said that against BSU’s tight splits on the offensive line, the Huskies were aggressively pinching down against runs up the middle, which allowed the Broncos to have some success bouncing runs outside – they finished the first half with 152 yards on 32 carries. They finished the game with 185 yards on 53 attempts, meaning they averaged just 1.6 yards per carry in the final two quarters (and just 2.8 yards per play in the second half overall).
“Honestly, the way we played the second half was how I expected it,” Qualls said. “Our youth showed, and that’s going to happen. We didn’t have a lot of people that had started games before and everything like that, who knew what to do in situations, or knew when to jump stuff or anything like that. So that’s something that showed. But also, in another sense, our youth showed – we were hungry. We were running to the ball. We were just fighting out there, scrapping every single play.
Qualls praised UW’s linebackers, particularly Victor, saying “dude’s a beast” and “he’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the country, if not the best.”
(The caveat here, of course, is that it’s the first week of the season, so it’s hard to really know just how good Boise State’s offense is going to be. The Broncos’ passing game, in particular, looked a little suspect, so it helped that UW’s secondary was never really tested.)
3. Special teams could be a strength.
UW assistant Jeff Choate teamed with Petersen for six years in Boise State and helped produce some memorable special-teams moments. In 15 games with the Huskies, Choate’s group is already setting a similar tone.
After the Huskies went 11 years between punt-return touchdowns, Dante Pettis has given them two in the last seven games – his first came against Colorado last season, and obviously he put the Huskies on the board with a 76-yard return on Friday night.
UW also blocked a punt (Jaydon Mickens made a nice play to get to it) and an extra-point (Budda Baker was credited for that one), the latter obviously turning out to be a pretty huge play because it gave the Huskies a chance to tie the game with a field goal in the final minute. And the Huskies covered kickoffs and punts well, too, even if punter Korey Durkee was a little inconsistent.
Obviously, the one negative here is that Cameron Van Winkle ultimately missed that 46-yard attempt with 21 seconds to play. But I don’t think anyone in the program is all that concerned about Van Winkle’s ability. He made 20-of-23 last season, he made his first two attempts on Friday night, and he just barely missed the 46-yard try with a slight breeze working against him.
Overall, a very encouraging day for UW’s special-teams units, which are going to have to be solid this season to help prop up an offense that is going to need some time to get going.
1. If this was a sign of things to come for the Huskies’ running game, they’re in trouble.
The numbers say it all here: UW netted 29 rushing yards on 22 attempts – Browning’s 12-yard scramble was actually the Huskies’ longest rush of the game – which makes it all the more remarkable that they even had a chance to win.
Dwayne Washington had 14 yards on eight carries. True freshman Myles Gaskin carried five times for five yards. Lavon Coleman had a single carry, and it lost two yards.
Some struggles were to be expected against a pretty tough Boise State defensive front, especially with how inexperienced the Huskies are along the offensive line.
Still, Petersen was not pleased.
“Se’ve got to be able to run the ball a little bit – not even a little bit, a lot,” Petersen said. “That’s too much pressure on everybody when we can’t run the ball.
“Knowing how good their defense is, I still thought we’d be able to run it better than we did. We didn’t run it worth anything tonight.”
The ineffectiveness of the running game, of course, is directly correlated to …
2. … the lack of a downfield passing attack.
When Browning had time (and the opportunity) to set his feet and throw, he seemed to do OK. But when you can’t run the ball, you can’t very well dial up a series of deep passes downfield, and that’s been a problem for UW since the start of last season.
To that end, Petersen and offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith are a little bit handcuffed when it comes to getting the passing game going. I don’t think either of them are satisfied with averaging 4.3 yards per pass attempt, but until the offensive line proves that it can open holes for the running backs or protect Browning long enough for receivers to get open downfield, there aren’t a whole lot of options. The Huskies tried to make some things happen with a series of short receiver tunnel screens, but the Broncos were all over those, and Browning’s longest completion to a receiver covered only 17 yards.
As poised as Browning appeared at times, the passing game remains a major concern until the Huskies prove that it shouldn’t be.
Of Browning in particular, Petersen said: “I know there’s a lot of little things that he’s going to tweak right away to help him out. Really need to put this tape on to see how we did in the pocket. I thought he got out of there a couple times and threw balls away (on plays) that we had nothing, which was good. He ran a couple times, and I think he can run a little bit more. But I think he and we will continue to progress and get better.”
3. Another slow start.
Particularly in road games, this was a recurring problem throughout the Steve Sarkisian era – last season’s Hawaii and Georgia State games come to mind, too – and the same scene played out on Friday night.
BSU set the tone with its running game, had the first three scores of the game and probably should have led by more than the 16-0 halftime margin.
Credit the Huskies for making the defensive adjustments necessary to shut down BSU’s ground game thereafter. But UW is going to play several teams better than the Broncos this season, all of which are more likely to take advantage of the kind of scoring opportunities BSU botched in the first half.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple