The defending Pac-12 champions are off to a perfect start in 2017
Defending Pac-12 Conference champion and 2016 College Football Playoff participant Washington is on track for another league crown, as well as consideration for the season-ending, four-team tournament, if the Huskies can continue on their perfect start to the 2017 season.
Washington hit the midway point with a 38-7 rout of Pac-12 North counterpart Cal. The Huskies improved their season-long point differential margin to 32.8 per game. For a defense that lost a multitude of NFL talent in the offseason, Washington showed no signs of regression. No opponent has managed more than 16 points on the Huskies, and none of the three Pac-12 Conference foes they have seen scored more than 10.
Purple has indeed reigned out West once again — so much so that Washington's toughest challenger through six games has been ESPN, which dedicated a portion of its telecast of the Cal game to criticizing the Huskies' "cupcake" schedule. That came in response to head coach Chris Petersen's lament of 10:30 p.m. ET or later kickoffs.
The second half of Washington's schedule features two teams currently ranked in the top 25, one in the top 10, and a potential Pac-12 Championship Game return. There won't be much room to criticize the Huskies if they can run through that slate.
Offensive MVP: WR Dante Pettis
This nomination might be unfair to running back Myles Gaskin, who has quietly put up some of the best rushing numbers in the Pac-12 at 559 yards on 90 carries with eight touchdowns. But when you turn special teams into the kind of consistent scoring weapon that Pettis has made punt returns for Washington, it's only right the Huskies' leading pass catcher gets special acknowledgement.
Pettis has returned three punts for touchdowns this season, which already matches last year's FBS leader, Christian Kirk of Texas A&M. With 37 receptions, Pettis has almost double the total of Washington's next-most productive target, and his six touchdown catches double up the team's next-leading scoring threats.
"He's a good runner when he gets the ball in his hand, whether as a receiver or in that punt return position," Petersen said. "He's a long-strider, which a lot of times doesn't necessarily equate to a good, elusive football player. But he is."
Matching up a cornerback on him is its own challenge, but Pettis being back on punts is an offensive weapon before he ever touches the ball.
"It's pretty hard to just not kick to a guy, and not cost yourself a bunch of yardage," Petersen said.
If Pettis doesn't get it on the punt return, he can make an opponent risk field position — and that's when quarterback Jake Browning and Pettis can make the defense pay, anyway.
PETTIS WITH THE HUSKY TOUCHDOWN! 💥💥💥— KOMO Newsradio (@komonewsradio) September 17, 2017
(Any bets on how high Dante Pettis just got?)
UW 1️⃣4️⃣, Fresno State 0️⃣ pic.twitter.com/wh8ufKqvCa
Defensive MVP: DT Vita Vea
The Washington defense takes cues from its front, and the Huskies have one of the best players on the interior line setting the tone. Vea's statistics aren't eye-popping — defensive tackles' numbers rarely are — but his ability to command multiple blockers frees up teammates to tee off.
Vea played one of his best games in the rematch of the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game, a 37-10 win at Colorado. Vea was central to the Huskies limiting explosive Buffaloes running back Phillip Lindsay to just 68 yards on 19 carries.
Best Moment of the First Half: Imperfect perfection
Pettis' run of three consecutive games with a punt return for a touchdown is remarkable, and the third in that run puts him just one shy of setting an all-time NCAA career record of nine. But his first of 2017 against Rutgers, which could have gone very poorly, turned into the most exciting.
To. The. House.— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 2, 2017
Go on get ya some, Dante Pettis. https://t.co/42vmn0CZDi
This turned a Washington deficit into the kick-start to lead that the Huskies have since rode to the nation's most lopsided win differential.
Best Newcomer: TE Hunter Bryant
Of the many Huskies to leave for the NFL, tight end Darrell Daniels left one of the biggest voids. Daniels was a primary option in the passing game for Browning a season ago, providing a shallow and intermediate route target to complement the big-play threats of Pettis and John Ross. Bryant, a true freshman, has immediately stepped in to fill that void, giving Browning the same kind of consistency target to lure defenses in and set up Pettis for the long ball.
Biggest Surprise: LB Ben Burr-Kirven
Washington lost a host of NFL talent from its defense, opening up opportunities for new faces to rack up big numbers. So who might become leading tackler this season with Budda Baker gone? Perhaps top returners, Keishawn Bierria or Azeem Victor?
No, neither preseason All-Pac-12 selection is even tops among Washington linebackers; that would be Burr-Kirven. A productive role player the previous two seasons, Burr-Kirven has stepped up to make a team-high 40 tackles through the first six games, deflect one pass and force a fumble.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Staying on the gas
Washington hasn't had to break much of a sweat through its first six games. There have been a handful of underwhelming halves for the Huskies, namely against Rutgers in the season opener, Colorado on Sept. 23 and Oregon State on Sept. 30. In both instances, Washington flipped the switch in the second half, turning close contests into blowouts over the course of the third quarter.
The three teams are 5-12 combined. A slow or sluggish start against one of the stiffer challenges Washington can expect on the schedule's back-half could doom the Huskies to a loss.
2. Myles Gaskin, unleashed
Gaskin's been productive for Washington all season, but gone somewhat unheralded. He has only carried more than 15 times twice this season, keeping his proverbial pitch-count low. Expect a heavier workload for Gaskin in the season's second half, and production comparable to his 202-yard outing at Colorado.
3. Home sweet home?
The good news for Washington? The Huskies play four of their final six at Husky Stadium. The bad news is that their lone regular-season loss in 2016 came at home late in the campaign to USC. In 2015, the Huskies lost three times at home in conference play. Considering the Pac-12 North may well come down to a home game against an opponent currently ranked in the top 10, home-field advantage for the majority of the final stretch isn't indicative of an easy path back to Santa Clara; or to the College Football Playoff.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 25 Washington State
The 2016 Apple Cup determined the Pac-12 North, and it was a game in which Washington exerted clear dominance over its in-state rival. Washington State looks like more of a credible championship threat this season, coupling outstanding defense with the prolific, pass-happy offense for which head coach Mike Leach is known.
2. Nov. 10 (Friday) at Stanford
The changing of the guard in the Pac-12 North occurred on a Friday night last September, as Washington welcomed Stanford to Seattle with a thoroughly one-sided rout. Payback and top-billing will be on the Cardinal's mind when Washington comes down to The Farm. The Huskies' run defense, currently best in the Pac-12, must contend with Heisman Trophy contender Bryce Love, the nation's leading rusher.
3. Nov. 18 Utah
Last season's meeting in Rice-Eccles Stadium went down to the wire, with Washington transfer quarterback Troy Williams nearly leading the upset. Utah is a team with similar defensive makeup to that of Washington, featuring a top-tier NFL prospect at tackle in Lowell Lotulelei.
4. Oct. 14 at Arizona State
Washington has not performed well historically in the state of Arizona. The Huskies needed overtime to beat an Arizona Wildcats team that was decidedly downtrodden a season ago, and the 2015 Dawgs let a double-digit lead slip away at Arizona State.
5. Oct. 28 UCLA
Washington alum Jim Mora leads his Bruins back to Seattle for the first time since 2014. UCLA won that matchup in Husky Stadium during Petersen's first season. This is a much different Washington team, however. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen — who leads the nation in passing yards and TD passes per game at the midway point — could give the Washington secondary fits... and vice versa.
6. Nov. 4 Oregon
Oregon-Washington can make a convincing case that it is the Pac-12's most acrimonious rivalry. Browning's taunt of an Oregon defender in last year's Washington romp — the first Husky win in the series since 2003 — underscored both the animosity, and the relief for UW to finally win. Last season showed a clear line in Washington's progress as a program, and Oregon's quick regression. First-year Ducks head coach Willie Taggart has things moving in the right direction, but an injury to quarterback Justin Herbert may not be healed in time for Oregon's trip to Seattle.