For the first time this season, we sit down to look back at a Washington Huskies loss.
USC beat UW, 26-13, at Husky Stadium on Saturday night, handing the Huskies their first loss of the season and further complicating the College Football Playoff picture. More on that later. Before we get to the positives and negatives, here are some links and highlights.
--- Here is my story from last night, as Washington’s dream of an undefeated season is dead after 10 games.
--- The Huskies lost star linebacker Azeem Victor to what appeared to be a serious injury.
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Highlights from the Pac-12 Networks:
And one audio highlight from Bob Rondeau:
1. The College Football Playoff is still in play.
It seemed that when Washington debuted at No. 5 in the initial CFP rankings behind one-loss Texas A&M, the committee was sending the message that UW must go undefeated to be included in the final bracket.
Then Saturday happened. Before the Huskies lost the Trojans, No. 2 Clemson lost to unranked Pittsburgh and No. 3 Michigan lost to unranked Iowa. Alabama is now the only unbeaten power-conference team, meaning three teams with one or more losses will make the CFP.
And there’s no reason to think the Huskies can’t be one of them, given their remaining schedule. If they beat Arizona State and Washington State to win the Pac-12 North, then beat another ranked team -- USC, Utah or Colorado -- in the Pac-12 title game, they would finish the season with a conference championship and three victories over ranked teams. Consider that among the six teams currently ranked ahead of UW in the AP and coaches polls -- Alabama, Ohio State, Louisville, Clemson, Michigan and Wisconsin -- a maximum of three may finish the season as champions of their conference. That leaves an opening for a one-loss, Pac-12-champion UW team to move back into the No. 4 spot, considering the degree to which the committee purports to weigh league titles when assembling its final rankings.
So while UW certainly could have done itself a huge favor by winning on Saturday, the loss did not entirely extinguish the Huskies’ CFP hopes.
2. Taylor Rapp.
There weren’t many statistical highlights for the Huskies in this one, but freshman safety Taylor Rapp stands out as a top performer.
The Bellingham native started again and snagged the first two interceptions of his career, including one in the third quarter that set the Huskies up at USC’s 33-yard line with a chance to take the lead. Their drive stalled, of course, and Cameron Van Winkle’s field-goal attempt was blocked -- a play that turned the game’s momentum back in USC’s favor -- but Rapp’s play at least gave the Huskies a chance.
In 10 games this season, Rapp has 34 tackles and a pass breakup.
“Taylor's been a good player all along,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “He doesn't play like a young guy. He tackles well and he's always in the right position. I'm really proud of how hard he plays and how smart he is. That's kind of been the thing we've said about him from the second he's been here.”
3. UW players seem to have the right attitude about losing.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning is particularly irritable after losses, and Saturday was no exception. But he seemed more intent on responding next week against Arizona State than he did about being bummed over the loss.
“Here’s where we find out, are we the frontrunners who only play well when things are going well, or are we going to respond and bounce back stronger?” Browning said. “That’ll be nice to see. What kind of team are we?”
Said UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria: “I feel like we know who we are, and ya’ll will figure out who we are next week. If y’all got any question marks or anything about it, you’ll find out next week.”
And Petersen: “I’m not worried that our guys are going to sit there and feel sorry for themselves for a long time. This hurts them. There’s no question. Just because I think they’re really good competitors, and they leave it all on the field and spend so much time during the week preparing, so when you put your life and your heart and soul into something and it doesn’t turn out right, that is hard, and I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with winning so many games in a streak. I just think it’s hard when you lose and you put so much into it. But we’ll regroup, we’ll be back. These kids will be resilient and we’ll go reload and see what we have.”
1. Rushing the passer is getting harder and harder.
You knew the Huskies would have a hard time putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks without star outside linebacker Joe Mathis. That showed up against Utah, another team with a strong offensive line, and it showed up frequently against USC, too.
The Huskies’ defensive success the past two seasons was predicated largely upon being able to pressure the quarterback with only the front four, leaving linebackers and a talented secondary to cover up the receivers. But UW had no choice but to blitz Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold far more than it had any other quarterback this year, and when those blitzes didn’t get home, UW’s defensive secondary had a hard time keeping USC’s receivers covered for extended periods of time. Any team would.
The Huskies finished with just one sack, the same total they’ve had in each of their four games without Mathis now.
“They’ve got a big offensive line, and I thought we'd probably have to bring a little more pressure to get to him,” Petersen said of UW’s blitzes. “We started doing that towards the latter part of the game and that was fairly effective. A little bit of cat and mouse game. Pretty hard to get pressure with four guys. Big. Big guys.”
2. No run game.
Petersen said during the week that USC would be UW’s toughest opponent yet when it comes to stopping the run, and that proved to be true. But I don’t think anyone expected the Trojans to be quite as dominant as they were.
Washington, which entered the game ranked sixth nationally in yards per rush, finished with just 17 yards rushing as a team (a number skewed some by three sacks of Browning). Sophomore tailback Myles Gaskin managed only 51 yards on 15 carries, and once the Huskies fell behind, they opted to throw the ball a whole bunch, and that made it easier for USC’s talented pass-rushers to zero in on Browning and make his life difficult.
“They are physical guys. We kind of knew that going in,” Petersen said. “That's a big, physical defense, and so that front seven was shedding blocks, and they did a good job playing soft enough on the back end to kind of keep things in front of them.
3. Azeem Victor is (perhaps seriously) injured.
Losing Mathis hurt UW’s pass rush. But losing Victor, the team’s leading tackler and an imposing physical force in the middle of the Huskies’ defense, will hurt a lot more than that.
Victor is one of the leaders of the defense, a two-year starter who is always around the ball. He’s essential in the run game, and though UW thinks backups DJ Beavers and Ben Burr-Kirven will be good players someday, there is no replicating what Victor provides.
There is no official prognosis on Victor yet, so maybe it’s a bit premature to talk about him as if he won’t play again. But as Petersen said after the game, it’s never good when a player has to be carted off the field (and with an air cast on his right leg).
The Huskies should be able to get by fine next week against Arizona State. But Victor’s loss will certainly be felt in the Apple Cup against a Washington State team that can really move the ball.