Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2018 football season! Each week we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 6 opponent: the Washington Huskies.
After the highs of 2016, it was pretty clear Washington was going to take something of a step back last year, and that’s what happened, as the Huskies ended up at 10-3. Even then, though, it’s not like the Huskies were bad. A fluke loss on the road to Arizona State kept them out of the Pac-12 Conference Title Game, and had the Huskies won both of those games (which would have been against a highly-ranked USC team) they would have had a solid case to make a return trip to the College Football Playoffs.
Which, let’s be fair here, would have been impressive, since last year’s Washington team was missing a lot of talent from that CFP-bound 2016 squad, including their deep play threat in John Ross and a host of talent in the secondary. Yet this team finished 5th in the nation in S&P+, so clearly there was still talent to go around.
It’s weird to look at an offense like Washington’s, which finished the year ranked 18th in offensive S&P+, and consider it the weak point of the team, but here we are.
A lot of it has to do with quarterback Jake Browning. I’ve never been sold on Browning as a top-tier quarterback, but he’s put up impressive numbers while at Washington (9104 yards passing over 3 years with a 64.4 completion percentage). But last year was a definite step back for him, throwing for over 700 fewer yards and over 24 fewer touchdowns than he had in 2016. Part of that may be due to losing a big play threat, but I think it has more to do with a refusal to throw the ball downfield with any regularity. Browning thrives in the efficiency zone, upping his completion percentage to 68.5% last year, but he’s not going to beat you with his arm like a top-end QB would. More importantly, if you could force any kind of sustained pressure on him, he was likely to crack; in the three losses that Washington had last year, Browning was sacked 11 times while Washington ended up with poor 3rd down efficiency numbers (the best was against Penn State, which really beat the Huskies with a strong offensive performance, but it’s hard to take too much from bowl games). Those numbers are stark when you consider that the Huskies only allowed 9 sacks in the 10 wins. The book is: pressure Browning, and you have a chance.
Of course, that’s all easier said than done. The other reason Browning’s numbers went down is because the Huskies relied so heavily on workhorse RB Myles Gaskin, who is back again this year. Gaskin averaged 6.2 YPC on 222 attempts for 1380 yards last year, throwing in 232 yards in the air as well. Teams routinely had to focus on trying to stop Gaskin, and only a few were successful, but that focus opened up the field for Browning. It is interesting that Arizona State, with their bad defense last year, was the only team to shut down both Browning and Gaskin last year.
Another impediment to getting to Browning is that offensive line. Yes, they lost an all-conference center in Coleman Shelton, but they gained 2 more, as they lost Kaleb McGary and Trey Adams to injury last year (Adams was hurt during that ASU game, if you’re looking for more culprits). The offensive line unit has 96 combined starts between them, so there’s a lot of experience and talent to go around.
The weak unit looks to be the receivers, but even that is questionable. Dante Pettis is gone, which may hurt the return unit even more than the receiving core, but he was a steady target last year, but there is a ton of talent waiting in the wings thanks to recruiting, and Chico McClatcher, the other big-gain threat from 2016, should be healthy this year.
Oh yeah, there’s also a new OC this year, as Bush Hamdan takes over for Johnathan Smith, who became the head coach at Oregon State, but nothing should really change. I’m just noting it for posterity’s sake.
Yeah, this unit is a nightmare to play against.
The 5th ranked unit in terms of defensive S&P+, Washington was great at putting you behind the 8-ball early and often. They ranked 1st in the country in IsoPPP (which measures just how successful your successful plays were), 2nd in the country in 20+ yard plays per game allowed, and 6th in opportunity rate (the percentage of carries that gained 5+ yards). If you went for a big gain and it failed, you were done for that offensive series.
Even more impressive is that this unit only lost a few starters, and only one was truly a star-level player. Of course, that player was nose tackle Vita Vea, a 1st-round pick who was a force on the defensive line, but even his production looks like it can be filled by senior Greg Gaines, who was a top performer on the line in his own right. Throw in other linemen Levi Onwuzurike and Jaylen Johnson, and teams should still have a hard time running against the Huskies, who ranked 12th in rushing defense S&P+ last year.
The linebacking core is also missing some experience with both starting inside linebackers moving on, but there’s so much talent in this unit that it’s hard not to see steady replacements take over, and outside linebackers/havoc creators Ryan Bowman and Benning Potoa’e return to provide their strong play.
The secondary, long a strength of the Washington defense, should continue to do so last year. Injuries hurt their performance by the end of the season, but that only made them deeper coming into this one, as they lost no major producers, Byron Murphy was one of the best secondary players in the conference as a freshman, though he only played 6 games due to injury, but he’ll be healthy to start the year along with Jordan Miller (who played 7 games). This unit should still be as devastating as ever.
Yeah, this one won’t be pretty.
The worst-case scenario for UCLA is if Washington loses their opening game to Auburn, then plays angry the rest of the season. That would set up UCLA for a thrashing at home. Though at the same time, UCLA is already one of the tougher games on Washington’s schedule, being a road game and all, and this is a Chris Petersen team so they probably weren’t going to take this game lightly anyway.
Yet in the back of my head, I look at Washington’s schedule and see that they play at Oregon the following week, and I can’t help but feel Washington may look ahead to that game, especially if they roll into the Rose Bowl undefeated (which I think they will be). I’m not saying UCLA pulls off the upset, far from it, but that possibility does exist.
Still, even with this being bold predictions and everything, reality has to kick in at some point, so I’ll go with a Washington win 37-23.