Sporting a top 10 ranking and off to a perfect start in Pac-12 Conference play, the Washington Huskies are right on pace for their second conference title game appearance in three seasons, and exactly halfway to a third consecutive 10-plus-win season. However, the second half of the 2018 campaign promises potential traps for head coach Chris Petersen's Huskies.
A pair of rivalry games on the road against Oregon and Washington State book-end the latter half of Washington's campaign, and a showdown against perennial Pac-12 contender Stanford sits between the two. Those three matchups, as well as a showdown against current South division leader Colorado, will determine the Huskies' championship fate. Likewise, no margin for error remains. A 21-16 loss Week 1 at Auburn leaves Washington having to likely run the table in order to contend for a College Football Playoff berth.
It's a treacherous road ahead, but one with plenty of exciting potential for Petersen's bunch. Among the storylines to watch: running back Myles Gaskin's pursuit of history. He needs 11 touchdowns to become the Pac-12's all-time leader in rushing scores. Gaskin can also realistically finish in the top three of rushers to ever play in the conference.
Offensive MVP: WR Aaron Fuller
On an offense defined by its balanced approach, Fuller has emerged as Washington's most consistent big-play producer. In the same vein, Fuller's steadiness in averaging a hair below six receptions per games has stabilized a Huskies offense enduring some growing pains.
Fuller accounts for 574 of Washington's 1,632 receiving yards on the season. He's equally productive on intermediate and deep routes, and has the athleticism necessary to make spectacular grabs against coverage.
Defensive MVP: LB Ben Burr-Kirven
A shout from the walkway outside the Rose Bowl Stadium visiting team media room on Oct. 6 echoed, "Ben Burr-Kirven for mayor!"
The Washington linebacker may not have an immediate political future, but Burr-Kirven is on track to win Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in a landslide. He's recorded an incredible 74 tackles through six games, tied for third in the nation, and second among all Power 5 conference players. Burr-Kirven's also forced three fumbles, including two pivotal takeaways in the Sept. 22 win over Arizona State.
Best Moment of the First Half: 22 Torrid Seconds
Twenty-two seconds against BYU on Sept. 29 demonstrated the full capacity of this Washington team when its defense and offense work in concert. Linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven made a play on BYU running back Lopini Katoa just before halftime, turning a potential clock run-out situation into a turnover deep in Cougars territory.
Not content for a field goal, Jake Browning completed two passes then ran nine yards with five seconds left to score a touchdown. The sequence turned a 14-0 lead into 21-0.
Best Newcomer: LB Ariel Ngata
A roster as veteran as Washington's does not have much reliance on newcomers, but Ngata has managed to factor into an especially deep rotation at his position. Ngata's recorded 11 tackles on the season, including four total in wins over BYU and UCLA. Ngata also demonstrated his potential as a pass-rushing threat Oct. 6 at UCLA, creating a pair of quarterback hurries.
Ngata edges out tight end Cade Otton, whose touchdown reception in the Sept. 22 win against Arizona State was crucial.
Biggest Surprise: WR Ty Jones
The departure of wide receiver Dante Pettis for the NFL begged the question, who would emerge as Washington's big-play threat? Jones answered that resoundingly Week 1 against Auburn, and continues to be the explosive-play threat the Huskies need to keep defenses honest on Aaron Fuller.
Jones has a team-high four touchdown catches, and is averaging 19.1 yards per reception.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Continued improvement on the offensive line
What looked like one of, if not the greatest strength on offense for Washington heading into 2018 — its offensive line — became a work-in-progress before Week 1. Losing left tackle Trey Adams continued a struggle that vexed the Huskies during the back-half of the 2017 campaign. Through the final three of Washington's first six games, however, the revamped offensive line showed improved pass protection, resulting in more passing yardage and fewer turnovers from quarterback Jake Browning.
Likewise, the run game has been more potent as the line has improved. Running back Myles Gaskin has a pair of 100-yard games in Pac-12 play, and the combination of Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed have two games combining for more than 150 yards. Washington's front faces more challenges in the second half of 2018, including Stanford, Jim Leavitt's improved Oregon defense, and a Washington State bunch ranked in the top 15 nationally for sacks.
2. Generating more pass rush
Getting to the quarterback was a hallmark of recent Washington defenses, evident in the Huskies' 40 sacks in 2016 and 39 a season ago. Washington's recorded just eight this season. While that has not had a detrimental impact on the Huskies' defense — it ranks third in the nation allowing just 13.7 points per game — the need for a more consistent pass rush heightens against Washington's remaining schedule.
3. Jake Browning's encore stretch
Browning assumed the reins as Washington's starting quarterback as a true freshman in 2015. His play through much of the 2016 regular season generated Heisman Trophy buzz, until a late-season shoulder injury slowed his production. Browning failed to put up similar numbers in 2017, and endured a rocky start to this season.
However, Browning's come on strong through three games. He was electric Sept. 22 against Arizona State, throwing three touchdown passes. He played perhaps his best game since 2016 in the rout of BYU on Sept. 29, then showed a dual-threat capacity to his game with 49 rushing yards Oct. 6 at UCLA. Browning is clicking at the right time, looking like more than just a game manager, but the kind of quarterback capable of leading his team to a championship.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 13 at Oregon
Bitter rivals meet in what could be an early de facto Pac-12 North championship game. The Ducks come into the matchup fresh from a bye week, and with some revenge in mind after losing the last meeting in Autzen Stadium, 70-21. This is a much better Oregon team — one that, under head coach Mario Cristobal and behind talented quarterback Justin Herbert — should be undefeated. A late-game blunder Sept. 22 on Stanford accounted for the Ducks' only loss.
2. Nov. 3 vs. Stanford
A November affair between these two teams a year ago effectively denied Washington a return to the Pac-12 Championship Game. Stanford running back Bryce Love succeeded against Washington where predecessor Christian McCaffrey failed the season prior, generating explosive run plays to keep the Huskies' defense back on its heels. When Love is healthy, the emergence of wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has made Stanford more dangerous on offense.
3. Oct. 20 vs. Colorado
Based on current standings, this would be a preview of the Nov. 30 Pac-12 Championship Game — and rematch of the 2016 edition. Colorado's off to its best start in 20 years and sports the conference's only perfect record through Week 6. The Buffaloes may have the most multifaceted offense Washington will see this season, with Laviska Shenault Jr. pacing a deep wide receiving corps; a variety of capable ball carriers; and a much more confident Steven Montez at quarterback than the Montez Washington saw last season (and in the second half of the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game).
What's more, Washington returns home for this game after two weeks on the road, including what should be a tough test at Oregon the week prior.
4. Nov. 23 at Washington State
Washington's dominated the Apple Cup in recent years, winning each game coached by Chris Petersen by at least 18 points. The Cougars are off to a strong start in 2018, though, sitting at 5-1 after rallying from an initial scare at Oregon State. Gardner Minshew's putting up eye-popping numbers, and the defense is one of the most aggressive in the Pac-12. This comes on six days' rest for both teams, and the Cougars have home-field advantage.
5. Oct. 27 at Cal
Cal started 2018 strong, much like it did '17. However, the Golden Bears have faltered in games against Oregon and Arizona, the result of offensive inconsistency. Golden Bears offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin gave Washington teams fits in 2011 and '14 as head coach at Eastern Washington, but finding the right combination to ignite a similar spark at Cal has been a challenge.
6. Nov. 17 vs. Oregon State
A key part of Washington's recent success, first-year Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith took on one of the nation's most challenging rebuilds. The Beavers have played much better in 2018 than in '17, even if the results do not reflect it. Still, Oregon State's a long way from providing much resistance against an opponent of Washington's caliber, even with Smith's familiarity.