What was different about this performance compared to the top-10 losses to Alabama and Penn State? This time, the Huskies absolutely looked like they belonged. Their playoff hopes are still alive.
The good, the bad and the lingering questions from No. 6 Washington’s 21-16 defeat against No. 9 Auburn on Saturday in Atlanta:
CFP hopes still alive
The Huskies falter again on the big stage, right? That’s the initial, baseline reaction to the season-opening defeat Saturday against Auburn. And it’s not the wrong reaction; it’s just incomplete. What was different about this performance compared to the recent top-10 defeats against Alabama and Penn State? This time, the Huskies absolutely looked like they belonged. This time, they dominated for significant stretches of the game. This time, they legitimately walked away feeling like they should have won. But they didn’t, and they’re well past the point as a program of counting moral victories, as Jake Browning said afterward. And yet, big picture they did help themselves at least a little bit.
Auburn is most likely the best team the Huskies will face all season, and certainly the best defensive front. Coming so far to play an Southeastern Conference team in its backyard will win Washington some credit from the College Football Playoff Committee. Given their performance, and given the level of competition, it’s not entirely out of the question for the Huskies to run the table in the Pac-12. Getting way ahead of ourselves here, but if they’re 12-1 with a conference championship in hand come December, they will get back to the CFP. And if they are, say, 11-2 and just miss out on a playoff bid, then the Rose Bowl isn’t such a bad consolation, right?
Boarding a cross-country flight early Sunday — hello from 34,000 feet! — I heard more lamenting of the senior quarterback’s play from Husky fans. I get it. There was a here-we-go-again feeling to the way the game ended Saturday, with Browning holding onto the ball for too long, trying too hard to desperately make something, anything, happen. For a fourth-year starter, there were some poor decisions from Browning you wouldn’t expect he would make at this point in his career. Two, actually, that I would point to: the first-half interception, when it appeared he thought his young tight end would try to come back for the ball and didn’t — just throw the ball away in that situation; and the third-down sack he took on the offense’s penultimate snap of the game. Other than that, I would point to other key factors in some of the offense’s miscues, especially in the red zone: no run game; a negated touchdown on the offensive pass interference; a curious play-call on the speed option that resulted in a lost fumble.
In all, this felt like Browning’s best performance against a top-10 team since the Huskies’ thumping of Stanford in 2016 — and, again, it came against the best defense he will see all season in a game in which he didn’t have his star left tackle and he didn’t have the support of a consistent running game. That should be encouraging. He was especially effective operating a hurry-up offense — he always seems at his best in those situations — and, well, more on that below.
Browning had help from some tremendous catches from his wide receivers, something the Huskies didn’t get much of in 2017. His drop on the final drive notwithstanding, Aaron Fuller had the best game of his UW career (seven catches, 135 yards). Ty Jones was a matchup problem for Auburn all day, and he had three really good catches. Quinten Pounds had the catch of the year with his one-handed touchdown grab on the left edge of the end zone (which appeared as the No. 5 play of the day on SportsCenter’s top 10 Saturday night). The overturned touchdown on Andre Baccellia’s very poor route on the pick play was a negative. But the receivers were otherwise the most pleasant development of the opener.
“We challenge the receivers to come up and make plays. I felt they did,” offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan said. “We wanted to break up Auburn’s press defense and I think we did a good job doing so.”
The third-down defense
Auburn was 9 for 18 on third downs, including several big conversions that helped the Tigers build an early 9-0 lead. The Huskies said they were expecting Auburn to come out with a power run game early and were surprised when Jarrett Stidham threw as much as he did. The Huskies adjusted after halftime, shutting down Auburn for the majority of the second half — until the go-ahead touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter. The key play on that drive was a 12-yard pass to the tight end on third-and-9 deep in UW’s territory. Huskies have to get off the field in that spot. In a game like this, they have to create some turnovers — something they failed to do.
The running game
The Huskies knew Auburn’s front seven would be an issue. And without preseason all-American Trey Adams, they knew it would be even more of an issue. Considering Jared Hilbers and Jaxson Kirkland were both making their first career starts, and considering Nick Harris was starting for the first time at center, the Huskies’ offensive line held up reasonably well. Still, with Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed, the running game was supposed to be the strength of this offense. Gaskin and Ahmed combined for 119 yards on 24 carries — nearly 5 yards per carry. That’s good. But when the Huskies really needed it, the running game was almost nonexistent in the red zone. UW scored only one touchdown in its six red-zone opportunities.
The kicking game
Peyton Henry had a busy debut. It was a promising start for the redshirt freshman walk-on kicker, who converted his first two field-goal attempts (from 31 and 28 yards). He missed badly from 40 yards in the third quarter (two plays after Fuller’s touchdown catch was wiped off), but bounced back with a 30-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that bounced off the right upright and in, giving the Huskies a 16-15 lead. Chris Petersen said the Huskies need work in their coverage teams. None of Henry’s five kickoffs went into the end zone, and Joel Whitford’s first punt was returned 32 yards. Whitford then left with an unspecified injury — a pre-existing injury, Petersen said. Walk-on Race Porter’s two punts averaged 39.5 yards.
What’s up with Trey Adams?
Petersen didn’t sound optimistic about Adams’ back injury, and the sense here is the left tackle is questionable at best for the Pac-12 opener at Utah in 13 days. Again, Hilbers played about as well as the Huskies could have reasonably hoped in his starting debut against that Auburn defensive front, but long-term the Huskies need Adams.
Here’s what the four-play, 75-yard, 40-second touchdown drive looks like: Browning to Fuller, 12 yards. Browning to Baccellia, 14 yards. Browning to Jones, 36 yards. Browning to Pounds, 13 yards, touchdown. That came in the final minute of the first half, and that was the best the UW offense looked all game, and maybe the best Browning has ever looked against an elite defense. So … why not more of that? Why not go uptempo more often? Petersen has been asked those questions many times before — and he’ll be asked again Monday — and Hamdan was asked after the game Saturday. There are several factors, as they explain, not the least of which is the Huskies believe going to a hurry-up offense puts their own defense at a disadvantage. The risk of a quick three-and-out by the UW offense would ultimately wear down the UW defense, and Petersen has been reluctant to consistently take that chance. But if Browning is truly at his best in an uptempo pace — and I think we could make a good case that he is — perhaps the Huskies should try to find a better balance there. Certainly, part of what makes the UW offense effective is its unpredictability — that it is “multiple,” that it can slow it down or speed it up from one series to the next, or completely overhaul its game plan one week to the next. Not many college offenses do that. Perhaps Petersen and Hamdan would disagree with the idea that Browning is that much better in a hurry-up. I would assert that it is, at the very least, an idea worth exploring again.
Where’s Salvon Ahmed?
Gaskin had another gutsy, if unremarkable, performance, rushing for 75 yards on 17 carries (and breaking Napoleon Kaufman’s school rushing record in the process). There’s little doubt here that Gaskin will get better as the season goes on — he has done so with incredible consistency in his career. What we haven’t seen yet is the development of Ahmed’s potential. The sophomore had seven carries for 40 yards against Auburn (5.1 yards a carry), and he needs more than seven touches. The Huskies ran just 65 plays, so there’s only so many touches to go around. But one of UW’s goals coming into the season was to be creative in how they used Ahmed, and there is still much to be desired there.