Like we always do at this time, let’s parse positives and negatives from Washington’s 30-24 loss to California.
1. Another encouraging performance for the defense.
That seems strange to say, I know, because Cal did finish with 481 total yards and converted 10-of-20 on third down. So the Huskies certainly weren’t perfect. But consider this: the UW offense committed five turnovers, Cal ran 37 more plays and possessed the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game, and yet the Huskies held a team averaging 51 points per game to just 30.
A big part of that effort – and likely a sequence Cal would have long lamented had it lost this game – was the two-possession stretch in the second quarter in which the Bears started drives on UW’s 29 and 23-yard lines, respectively, only to come away with three points total.
First, Cal recovered that Jake Browning sack-fumble that was originally ruled an incompletion, then drove to UW’s 1-yard line with a first-and-goal before the Huskies obviously swelled up and stuffed Cal on four consecutive plays.
And after Browning threw an interception on UW’s very first offensive play after taking over, Cal began again at the 23-yard line and actually went one yard backward on three plays before settling for a 41-yard field goal.
The Huskies pressured Jared Goff maybe even better than they did last season in Berkeley, sacking him five times, including Cory Littleton’s sack on 3rd-and-13 with three minutes left that at least gave the Huskies a chance to come back.
Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor each finished with 12 tackles. Elijah Qualls had two sacks. Darren Gardenhire had his first career interception and, of course, Sidney Jones changed the complexion of the game with his 70-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
UW’s offense put its defense in difficult circumstances all game. Cal probably feels like it should have scored 40-plus. So the fact that UW was able to limit the Bears to 30 points, in spite of all those yards, is a testament to a pretty spirited defensive effort.
2. Dwayne Washington rushed for 100 yards for the first time since last year’s Apple Cup.
And it looked pretty easy for him, as he took 10 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown. Most of that, of course, came on UW’s five-play, 71-yard scoring drive in the first quarter, in which Jake Browning simply handed to Washington for carries of 12, 3, 15, 27 and 14 yards to get the Huskies into the end zone.
But if you’d told me Dwayne Washington would rush for 109 yards on 10 carries in a game in which the Huskies gained only 259 yards of total offense and averaged only 4.7 yards per play, I’d have been a little confused as to why they didn’t go to him more.
It’s true, as coach Chris Petersen said, that the Huskies found themselves in a hole and felt like they had to pass the ball more to play catch-up. And they only ran 55 total plays, so Washington still saw a healthy portion of UW’s total offensive touches (he also had three catches for 19 yards, and was obviously targeted on that wheel route in the fourth quarter that slipped just off his hands). But since little else seemed to work for the Huskies offensively – and because Washington was averaging 10.9 yards per carry, picking up those yards in big chunks – it’s a little curious that UW didn’t just ride Washington until Cal proved it could stop him.
Still, it was an encouraging performance for the junior tailback, who had carried just 17 times for 29 yards in the Huskies’ first three games – and he is currently the team’s leading receiver with 17 catches, 223 yards and two touchdowns.
3. Tight ends continue to be a solid option for Browning.
The Huskies’ passing game was pretty weak, overall, but when Browning did have time to throw, he did a good job of finding open tight ends.
Josh Perkins led the team with five catches for 55 yards, and Darrell Daniels caught three passes for 30 yards (including a 19-yarder, the Huskies’ longest completion of the game). Perkins also ranks second on the team with 13 catches for 167 yards in four games this season.
So, eight of Browning’s 17 completions on Saturday went to tight ends, and he seems to have a particularly strong rapport with Perkins. I’d look for those kind of quick throws more and more if the Huskies’ pass protection doesn’t improve.
You knew Jake Browning would experience some freshman growing pains this season. They showed up repeatedly on Saturday, as Browning missed on a deep throw to Marvin Hall that was intercepted, and threw his second interception when he tried to force a desperation pass across the field to Jaydon Mickens on what turned out to be UW’s final play. He also lost a fumble when he was hit just before he could release a pass attempt in the second quarter.
UW’s other two fumbles – by Isaiah Renfro and Dwayne Washington – were actually more costly. One play after he was flagged for a false start, Renfro caught a pass for a 17-yard gain into Cal territory before losing the ball. The Bears recovered and later scored a touchdown.
And Washington’s fumble was maybe the turning point in the game. It came one play after that missed wheel route up the left sideline – if Browning’s throw is just a few inches shorter, maybe Washington hauls it in and the Huskies take the lead – and it led to a Cal field goal that extended the Bears’ lead to 30-21.
You can say what you want about the Huskies’ lack of offensive efficiency last season, but one thing they didn’t do was turn the ball over – they finished 2014 with just 17 turnovers, tied for 27th-least in the country. Through four games this year, they’ve already given it away 10 times – four interceptions and six fumbles (though it’s worth noting that their five turnovers on Saturday doubled their season total).
Given UW’s upcoming schedule – at USC, vs. Oregon, at Stanford, vs. Arizona, vs. Utah, at Arizona State – the margin for error is already going to be pretty thin for the Huskies’ offense. They simply can’t afford to compound their youthful shortcomings with a bunch of turnovers.
2. Pass protection – and Jake Browning scrambling – is a major concern.
Browning was pressured into those turnovers by a Cal pass rush that sacked him five times and forced him from the pocket on several other occasions, though Petersen was hesitant to place all of the blame for that on UW’s pass protection. He said there were likely a few plays on which Browning probably could have hung in the pocket longer (which, incidentally, was a major problem for Cyler Miles throughout last season).
But just as the Huskies are going to have to tolerate some growing pains from Browning, they’re going to have to accept the same from UW’s offensive line, which again started three freshmen (Trey Adams, Jesse Sosebee and Kaleb McGary) on Saturday.
“I think there’s some pressure there that he might have had to get out of it, (but) maybe he could step up,” Petersen said. “So I don’t know. Playing three freshmen on the o-line. That’s going to be a hard combination.”
Regardless, Browning is not a scrambling quarterback. If he has to frequently flee the pocket, the Huskies are going to be in trouble.
“He’s scrambling too much,” Petersen said. “(Either) he needs to stay in there or our protection needs to tighten up. It’s too much scrambling for what we’re about.”
3. Tackling needs work.
It’s premature to say that the Huskies are a poor tackling team. But they looked like one on Saturday, particularly when it came to trying to bring down bruising Cal running back Vic Enwere, who went Beast Mode on a 12-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Petersen said he thought a few of Cal’s broken tackles were due to UW players not wrapping up at the point of contact, which seems like a simple enough problem to fix. So I don’t think any of that was necessarily a harbinger of things to come. But it certainly didn’t help the Huskies’ situation on Saturday.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple