University of Washington

Huskies midseason report: MVPs, surprises, concerns

Washington's Myles Gaskin (9) carries the ball under pressure by Southern California’s Chris Hawkins on Oct. 8 in Los Angeles. Washington won 17-12.
Washington's Myles Gaskin (9) carries the ball under pressure by Southern California’s Chris Hawkins on Oct. 8 in Los Angeles. Washington won 17-12. The Associated Press

Through six games, Washington is 3-3, 1-2 in the Pac-12. They visit No. 10 Stanford for a 7:30 p.m. game Saturday night.

At the season’s midway point, here’s a breakdown of who stood out for the Huskies in the first half.

OFFENSIVE MVP: Myles Gaskin, RB, 5-9, 192, Fr.

Stats: 79 rushes, 498 yards, 6.3 ypc, 5 TDs

Comment: There isn’t really a player on Washington’s offense that has been consistently outstanding, but Gaskin has made more of his opportunities than anyone else. The Huskies returned Dwayne Washington, Lavon Coleman and Deontae Cooper from last year’s team, yet Gaskin, a true freshman, has already taken over as the No. 1 back. He’s patient, shifty and has a knack for finding — and sprinting through — the smallest creases in the offensive line. In other words, he’s capable of carving out yards even if the line doesn’t block perfectly. Those traits have helped him to three games of 100 or more rushing yards, and he became the first true freshman in UW history to rush for 100 or more yards in consecutive games (against USC and Oregon). And he’ll be one of the biggest keys to the Huskies’ offensive success going forward. (One note: a team’s starting quarterback is pretty much always going to be its most valuable offensive player, even if he isn’t producing at a high level. So for the sake of this discussion, we eliminated Jake Browning from contention.)

Honorable mention: Senior tight end Joshua Perkins leads the team with 264 receiving yards. Dwayne Washington ranks second on the team — behind Gaskin — in all-purpose yards with 415.

DEFENSIVE MVP: Azeem Victor, LB, 6-3, 240, R-So.

Stats: 53 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks

Comment: This was a far more difficult decision, because the Huskies have four or five guys who merit consideration — you could make a great case for Travis Feeney, Keishawn Bierria or Budda Baker. But I went with Victor because he stands out the most when you watch the Huskies — and because he has 53 tackles in five and a half games. He’s fast, physical and aggressive — perhaps too aggressive at times, though UW will likely accept the trade-off — and his presence at middle linebacker sets an intimidating tone for a defense that is far tougher than most expected. Victor leads the team in total tackles and is tied for sixth in the Pac-12 despite missing the first half of the Oregon game.

Honorable mention: Feeney leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks from the buck linebacker position. Bierria and Cory Littleton have also been stout at linebacker. Baker is the team’s best defensive back. Kevin King leads the team with three interceptions.

MOST IMPROVED: Darren Gardenhire, CB, 5-11, 185, So.

Stats: 21 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defended, 4 pass breakups

Comment: As a freshman, Gardenhire said there were times when he didn’t know the plays. Now, he’s a regular at one cornerback, he’s made three starts this season, and he’s already notched his first two interceptions. Coaches like his physical style and his ball skills, and there might be no another player on the roster who has improved as much as Gardenhire since last season ended.

Honorable mention: Senior defensive tackle Taniela Tupou is a starter for the first time in his career, and has made the most of his opportunity. Victor and Bierria are both playing much larger roles than they did a year ago — and playing them well. So is nose tackle Elijah Qualls.

BEST PLAY: How about a two-play sequence? After cornerback Sidney Jones forced a fumble by USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tupou recovered it, UW receiver Marvin Hall threw a 27-yard touchdown pass on a trick play to Perkins. The score gave the Huskies a 10-6 lead early in the third quarter of their eventual 17-12 upset victory.

Honorable mention: Browning’s 3rd-and-5 pass to Jaydon Mickens that gained six yards and gave the Huskies the final first down they needed to run out the clock against USC. Also, Jones’ 70-yard fumble return for a touchdown that gave the Huskies a chance against California (though they eventually lost).

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Hard to say it’s not the defense as a whole. Despite losing four players selected in the first 44 picks of the NFL draft — Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters, Shaq Thompson and Hau’oli Kikaha — the Huskies’ defensive statistics have improved nearly across the board. They rank 16th nationally in scoring defense, 16th in yards per carry allowed, 30th in pass efficiency defense and 25th in yards per play allowed. For the sake of comparison, they ranked 51st last season in yards per play allowed.

BIGGEST CONCERN: The passing game is holding the Huskies back. The run game hasn’t been explosive, either, though Gaskin gives them some hope. But after a strong couple games against Sacramento State and Utah State, Browning has struggled and the young offensive line has struggled to protect him at times. Washington is averaging fewer yards per pass attempt in conference games than every other team except Oregon State, and Browning has thrown just one touchdown and three interceptions in three Pac-12 games. If UW doesn’t pass the ball better, it’s hard to see it getting to six wins and a bowl game.