Parsing positives and negatives -- more of the former than the latter, this time -- from Washington’s 17-12 upsey victory over USC.
1. The defense continues to impress
Through five games, here’s a look at where the Huskies rank nationally in some major defensive statistics:
Yards per play allowed: 4.4 (16th)
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Yards per rush attempt allowed: 3.1 (20th)
Yards per pass attempt allowed: 6.1 (34th)
Points per game allowed: 15.0 (T13th)
Sacks per game: 2.6 (T29th)
Their latest achievement, of course, was limiting USC to just 12 points, 346 total offensive yards and an average of just 5.1 yards per play – an entire three yards per play below the Trojans’ season average of 8.1, which ranked second nationally.
If any question still existed as to whether Washington’s defense could still hold its own after losing four players to the first 44 picks of the NFL draft … well, Thursday night’s performance should be a sufficient answer.
I asked Petersen afterward if he could have expected the Huskies’ defense to play as well as it has through five games.
“You just never really know,” he said. “But I just think that we’ve got some really good coaches over there, we’ve got some really good kids that really bought into their coaching, and they’re competing really, really hard, and that’s all we can really ask.”
Azeem Victor continues to play like an all-conference linebacker. Keishawn Bierria, Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton keep producing. The secondary covers well and creates turnovers, like the fumble Sidney Jones forced on a reception by JuJu Smith-Schuster, which led to the Marvin Hall receiver-pass touchdown to Joshua Perkins. And the defense line seems to have not only a solid starting group, but enough depth behind them to allow the Huskies to rotate and stay fresh.
Considering how young many of those players are, the Huskies all of a sudden appear to be pretty well set on that side of the ball for the foreseeable future.
2. Jaydon Mickens had a quietly productive game in his hometown
His stats weren’t super-duper-impressive – six catches for 49 yards – though he did lead the Huskies in receptions, catching more than a third of quarterback Jake Browning’s completions.
The first, a 16-yard catch-and-run on a 3rd-and-13 play on UW’s first possession, set the Huskies up at USC’s 20-yard line (though they ultimately missed a field goal, the first of three first-quarter scoring opportunities they squandered. More on that later).
Mickens also caught an 11-yard pass to convert a 3rd-and-10 on the possession that eventually led to UW’s first field goal – and ran a great route to get open in the end zone on 3rd-and-goal on that same drive, and would have had an easy touchdown reception if Browning hadn’t overthrown him.
And Mickens of course made one of the biggest plays of the game, snagging a 3rd-and-5 slant pass from Browning for a six-yard gain to allow the Huskies to kneel out the clock on their final possession.
That route, offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said, wasn’t easy.
“That was such a monster play,” Smith said. “Third down and go for it, go-win mentality, (to) not run it again. Put it in the true freshman’s hands. Made a good throw. It was a good route, because it wasn’t open early. He had to work it a little bit. Jake put a good ball.”
Browning said a similar route was also available on the other side of the field, so he had options.
“Great player made a great play,” Browning said of Mickens. “It was basically 1-on-1. That’s what won the game. I think big-time players make big-time plays, and he obviously did.”
Mickens spoke earlier in the week about the significance of finally playing a game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as a senior. He grew up in Los Angeles as a big USC fan.
“I was a Trojan fan,” Mickens said. “Now I’m a UW fan. But it always lives with you, it always breathes with you.”
3. The Huskies were “stubborn” with the run, and Myles Gaskin emerged again
So, is Gaskin the guy now at tailback?
That was the question after the true freshman out of O’Dea High School rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns in UW’s 49-0 win over Sacramento State on Sept. 12.
But in the Huskies’ next two games, he carried just 20 times for 58 yards, and it appeared Dwayne Washington had once again regained his status as UW’s top back.
Thursday night, though, the Huskies again went with Gaskin, giving him 22 carries that netted 134 yards and a touchdown – including runs of 24, 31 and 11 yards in the second half.
After the Huskies curiously abandoned the run during their loss to Cal despite Dwayne Washington gaining 109 yards on 10 carries, Petersen said he was glad Smith decided to be more stubborn about it against USC – despite the fact that UW again had to shuffle its offensive line due to a few injuries.
The Huskies finished with a modest total of 135 yards rushing on 36 carries. But Gaskin provided an important spark.
“We said we wanted to challenge these guys to be physical, and again, it’s not always pretty,” Smith said. “But there’s some benefit to continuing to grind at it. We’ve got to get better at it. I thought Myles had some good runs with some good vision.”
Said Petersen: “Myles is crafty. Sometimes you’ve got to go with the guy with the hot hand. And I thought he was really, really patient. I thought our o-line did a good job of just grinding and keeping guys covered up, and Myles found that crease.”
1. First-quarter offense was … a struggle
Don’t think much more needs to be added here, so let’s just recap what I wrote in today’s story:
If not for three blown scoring chances in the first quarter, the Huskies, who finished with just 299 yards of total offense, might have run away with this one.
First, Darren Gardenhire’s interception of Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler set up the Huskies with a first down at USC’s 33-yard line on their first possession. They moved it 19 yards before settling for a Cameron Van Winkle field-goal try that hooked wide left.
Washington’s defense forced a three-and-out on USC’s next possession, and after the Trojans punted to midfield, a personal foul penalty moved UW to the USC 35 to start the drive. Then freshman quarterback Jake Browning missed two open receivers near the end zone — both overthrows to Joshua Perkins and Dante Pettis — and Browning pooch-punted to USC’s 6.
Penalties thwarted the Trojans after they achieved a pair of first downs, and Kessler again threw a third-down interception, this one to Jones. The Huskies were again in business with a first down at the USC 21-yard line.
And after a holding penalty and a pair of 1-yard rushes by tailback Myles Gaskin, Browning threw an interception to Trojans defensive back Iman Marshall. USC responded by driving 60 yards and kicking a 34-yard field goal, taking a 3-0 lead despite gifting the Huskies three consecutive drives that started inside the USC 35-yard line.
Asked about that sequence afterward, Petersen said: “It was difficult for me because we had guys open, and you know, Jake will learn from it. But like I said, I was really pleased with … I felt like the playcalling was good, we were getting guys open, we were taking shots downfield, we just weren’t hitting them. And he will. He’s an accurate thrower. He just didn’t hit those.”
Indeed, in those instances, it seemed a lack of execution was more to blame than the strategy. Petersen is correct that Browning had open receivers. He just didn’t make the throws – maybe another sign of his youth – and the Huskies are fortunate that it didn’t end up mattering. Against a better-prepared opponent, those kind of missed chances can lose a game.
2. Run defense was spotty
USC officially rushed 39 times for 190 yards, an average of 4.9 yards per carry. That’s certainly not a bad figure for UW to allow, but it also includes the 25 yards the Trojans lost on five sacks of quarterback Cody Kessler.
Take those out, and the Trojans rushed for 215 yards on 34 tries, and their top two tailbacks – Tre Madden and Ronald Jones II – combined to rush 25 times for 189 yards, an average of 7.6 yards per carry.
In a way, the Huskies were somewhat fortunate that USC didn’t simply keep trying to run the ball right at them, because that was by far the Trojans’ most effective offensive strategy. So it might be easy to forget in the aftermath of a big win that USC actually moved the ball pretty well when Kessler just handed the ball to Madden and Jones. For some reason, they abandoned that approach when they most needed to move the ball and score. Chalk that up to coaching, I guess.
3. Azeem Victor’s targeting penalty will be costly
Hard to really know how the officials upheld the targeting call against Victor after review. Replays seemed to show him pretty clearly hitting Cody Kessler in the side/shoulder area with his arms. It didn’t look like Victor led with his helmet, and it didn’t look like he hit Kessler in the helmet, either.
And while Petersen can’t be happy about that call, or the fact that it will cost Victor a one-half suspension next week against Oregon, he used the play as an opportunity to reinforce just how careful a defensive player has to be around the quarterback. Littleton was also flagged for roughing the passer later in the game.
“I just think we can get pressure and we can play smarter, when those kids are coming off the edge or blitzing and he gets rid of the ball,” Petersen said. “I know it’s frustrating, because you want to hit that guy and that’s the name of the game. But I keep saying, the game’s changed. We know that. It was changed a couple years ago. They’re going to be real protective around him, so we’ve got to make better decisions.”
The Pac-12 office does not overturn suspensions stemming from targeting ejections, so Victor’s one-half penalty is final. Would imagine senior Scott Lawyer will start in his place.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple