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Washington Football: Huskies Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Washington Football: Huskies Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Washington Football: Huskies Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

The bad news for defending Pac-12 champion Washington midway through its 2019 slate? The mystic power of #Pac12AfterDark claimed the Huskies as victims twice, putting them in a hole for repeating.

The good news? Each of the previous two seasons, the Pac-12 North winner advanced to Levi's Stadium with multiple conference losses. So, despite losses to Cal in Week 2 and at Stanford in Week 6, Washington is not eliminated from title contention. However, the Huskies have zero margin for error with both of the conference's preseason favorites still on deck.

Offensive MVP: Offensive Line

Washington's dealt with offensive inconsistency this season, a recurring theme for the Huskies since the College Football Playoff campaign of 2016. For the most part, however, the front five has played well. The Huskies rank 26th nationally in tackles for a loss allowed, and have given up nine sacks in six games despite playing aggressive defenses in BYU and Cal. Replacing record-setting running back Myles Gaskin was a big question heading into Washington's 2019. Coordinator Bush Hamdan's used a committee, and freshman Richard Newton and veteran Salvon Ahmed have both shined for stretches operating behind the line.

Defensive MVP: DB Myles Bryant

The latest NFL-caliber defensive back in Jimmy Lake's outstanding secondary, Bryant, has upheld Washington's lofty standard. He has 39 tackles to lead the team, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and two interceptions. Bryant's do-everything ability aids in defending both the pass and the run equally effectively.

Best Moment of the First Half: Ahmed Goes 89 Yards vs. USC

Salvon Ahmed slammed on the door on a USC comeback bid in the Huskies' Sept. 28 defeat of the Trojans, when he burst through a hole and raced from the Washington 11-yard line to the end zone. The play demonstrated Ahmed's full potential when playing at 100 percent.

Best Newcomer: DB Cameron Williams

A redshirt freshman, Williams had an opportunity to spend his first collegiate season learning from some of the best defensive minds and most elite secondary playmakers in college football. It's paying dividends: Williams has contributed to the rebuild of Washington's secondary with three interceptions, including two picks that proved critical in the defeat of USC.

Biggest Surprise: RB Richard Newton

A contender for Best Newcomer as well, Newton joined a loaded backfield and immediately emerged as one of the unit's most productive options. Newton has six touchdowns through six games, though an injury sustained at Stanford may linger heading into the second half of the season.

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

1. Offensive consistency

Georgia transfer quarterback Jacob Eason taking over for four-year starter Jake Browning elicited enthusiasm for Washington's offense. And, indeed, Eason's ability to throw the deep ball has added an element the Huskies lacked the last couple years after Browning sustained a shoulder injury. However, Eason's play has been markedly up and down — and when it's down, the Huskies have lost.

Washington's offense also has the peculiar quandary of boasting depth, but needing someone to emerge as a star. Tight end Hunter Bryant and wide receiver Andre Fuller both have that ability in the passing game. Ahmed's similarly capable of doing so on the ground. It's just a matter of producing each week.

2. Pressuring quarterbacks

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Last season, Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski co-coordinated a defense that flourished without blitzing often. The Huskies secondary was so deep and so good, Washington didn't need to apply heavy pressure to dominate against the pass. This year, the Huskies are bringing more heat than a season ago, but not quite at a level reminiscent of 2016.

Washington faces mobile quarterbacks Khalil Tate and Tyler Huntley on the back-half of the schedule, and remarkably efficient Justin Herbert (who also plays behind one of the best offensive lines in the nation). However Lake and Kwiatkowski opt to attack these quarterbacks will be an interesting storyline.

3. Recovering from a slow start

Facing hurdles on the way to the Pac-12 Championship Game isn't new for Washington. The Huskies dropped an October game at Cal a season ago, then proceeded to run through the final four games, against quality opponents like Stanford and Washington State, to claim the program's second conference title in three years. The hole is deeper this season, and the schedule still to come may be more challenging. This six-game stretch ahead may be the most difficult for coach Chris Petersen in his tenure at Washington.

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

1. Oct. 19 vs. Oregon

Last year's border rivalry added a new layer to the dynamic, with both Oregon and Washington contending for a conference championship. Despite their recent successes, the two programs have rarely been at or near the Pac-10/12 mountaintop at the same time. Last season, the Ducks scored an overtime win that ostensibly removed Washington from the College Football Playoff conversation. The Huskies have the motivation to do likewise when Oregon comes to Seattle, but Mario Cristobal's physical team presents the same kind of challenge Cal and Stanford gave Washington.

2. Nov. 2 vs. Utah

A rematch of last year's Pac-12 Championship Game, Washington needed a Byron Murphy pick-six — scored in particularly improbable fashion — to outlast Utah. This is a much better Utes team offensively than the Huskies saw last November, with quarterback Tyler Huntley healthy and playing the best football of his career. Utah also brings its trademark physicality on the defensive side, which has proven to be a challenge for the Huskies early on. This falls at a favorable point in the calendar, however, with a bye week between the rivalry game with Oregon and Utah's visit to Husky Stadium.

3. Oct. 12 at Arizona

In the last 12 years, Washington has just one win in the state of Arizona. That was an overtime victory in Tucson three years ago when a 12-win Huskies bunch outlasted a 3-9 Wildcats team. Washington returns to Arizona Stadium fresh off a tough loss at Stanford, and with the host Wildcats rolling. Arizona won its fourth straight with a 35-30 defeat of Colorado, and sits atop the Pac-12 South with a chance to make a statement. Quarterback Khalil Tate is playing the most well-rounded football of his three years as Arizona starter.

4. Nov. 23 at Colorado

While Washington maintained its championship-contending standard following their meeting in the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game, Colorado hit a lull. A seven-game losing streak to end 2018 prompted a switch from Mike MacIntyre to Mel Tucker, a coach with extensive NFL and SEC experience. In his first season with the Buffaloes, Tucker's physical approach has shown up at times in big wins over Nebraska and Arizona State. Colorado also has an offense that, when at full strength, rivals the most explosive in the Pac-12.

5. Nov. 29 vs. Washington State

Apple Cup rival Washington State has been in the hunt for the Pac-12 North a few times the last few years, but had its hopes spoiled by the Huskies. Last season's meeting in Pullman was especially dire for the Cougars, as a blizzard and defensive onslaught deluged Washington State's hopes of making the College Football Playoff. The Cougars are in a state of flux in 2019, reaching No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25 before dizzying losses to UCLA and Utah led to the exit of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. Barring a dramatic transformation with Claeys out, Washington State appears to be in a state of repair.

6. Nov. 9 at Oregon State

Former Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith has done an excellent job rejuvenating Oregon State, particularly when it has the ball. The Beavers rank third in the Pac-12 in scoring offense midway through the season, boasting both a prolific passing attack with quarterback Jake Luton and arguably the best receiver in the conference, Isaiah Hodgins; and a multifaceted rushing attack with Artavis Pierce and Jermar Jefferson. While Oregon State's defense struggles, the Beavers can score with anyone. This could be a trap game for Washington, coming off a high-profile home date against Utah.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.