CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: 9 statistics UW Huskies should aim for as they chase Pac-12 title

May 17, 2023, 4:22 PM

UW Huskies Michael Penix...

UW Huskies QB Michael Penix Jr. is pressured by Oregon State's Kitan Oladapo in 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Spring practices ended nearly a month ago. The UW Huskies’ big June recruiting weekend is more than a month out. The season itself won’t kickoff for another three-and-a-half months.

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Save for the abiding possibility of media-rights or realignment news, we are in something of a quiet period for college football happenings, to the extent such a thing exists anymore. There is much to be done, but nearly all of it behind the scenes. Players are working out. Coaches are on the road recruiting. Colorado is filling out its roster.

Last week, veteran Pac-12 scribe Jon Wilner published his post-spring national top-25. He had Washington No. 4, the highest projected rank I’ve seen for the UW Huskies yet. It has me thinking about what it will take for the Huskies to resemble that kind of team at season’s end, and what the numbers will have to look like along the way.

Based on last season’s strengths and weaknesses, UW’s 2023 schedule and what I saw during the spring, here are nine realistic stats for the Huskies to strive for this season as they pursue a conference title and hope to contend for the Playoff.

0 — home losses

This would require beating both Oregon and Utah, which is no small task, but it’s at least possible the Huskies could be betting favorites against both. UW almost certainly will be the betting favorite in every other home game (Boise State, Tulsa, California, Arizona State, Washington State). With USC and Oregon State highlighting the road schedule, an unbeaten home slate would give the Huskies at least some margin for error in pursuit of a conference championship and potential CFP bid.

1 — defensive back voted first- or second-team All-Pac-12

UW entered each season from 2016 to 2021 with at least one returning DB who had been at least a second-team all-conference pick. The 2023 season marks the second year in a row that UW returns none (though Alex Cook was voted to the second team as a senior last season). Between a veteran transfer at cornerback (Jabbar Muhammad), a pair of sixth-year senior safeties (Asa Turner and Dominique Hampton) and a fifth-year junior moving to a new position (Mishael Powell), the Huskies need someone to become that kind of player in order to achieve the defensive improvement they’re striving for.

2 — players with 100-plus carries

The Huskies had this last year, with Wayne Taulapapa carrying 140 times in 13 games and Cam Davis taking 107 carries in 11 games — a pretty even split, with roughly one more carry per game for Taulapapa. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having only one running back carry 100-plus times, because it can mean that a. that guy is a stud or b. the No. 2 and No. 3 options are equally talented and deserve equal time. Knowing, though, that Davis emerged during the spring as the No. 1 option, and that Mississippi State transfer Dillon Johnson possesses some lead-back traits, the best-case scenario probably has the Huskies giving the majority of the reps to their top two options (and, of course, that would mean each stays relatively healthy). That doesn’t mean a No. 3 or No. 4 couldn’t add value along the way, but this staff has fared well in past seasons with a primarily two-headed backfield.

5 — place in the Heisman voting for Michael Penix Jr. (or better)

Penix is unquestionably a top-five preseason Heisman pick, and such status can go a long way toward buttressing a player’s actual campaign. If he doesn’t ultimately finish in the top five, then, it probably means the Huskies’ season fell short of justifying Heisman status for their starting quarterback. If Penix does wind up a top-five vote-getter — a feat accomplished at UW by only defensive lineman Steve Emtman, in 1991 — it probably means UW won double-digit games and scored a bunch of points along the way. Other crucial productivity stats — such as receiving yards for Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, etc. — flow from this, too.

8 — sacks by edge rushers who aren’t Bralen Trice or Zion Tupuola-Fetui

Trice led the team last season with nine sacks, with Jeremiah Martin right behind at 8.5 and ZTF totaling 4.5 off the bench. UW’s other edge rushers combined for just one. With some combination of Zach Durfee, Maurice Heims, Sekai Asoau-Afoa, Lance Holtzclaw and maybe Voi Tunuufi, if he moves over from the defensive interior, the Huskies must find a way to put pressure on opposing passers when their two stars aren’t on the field. Even with Martin and Trice playing the second- and fourth-most defensive snaps on the team last season, per Pro Football Focus, the Huskies still relied on rotational players like ZTF (384 snaps) and Sav’ell Smalls (223) to play a fair amount.

15 — total sacks allowed (or fewer)

Washington gave up only seven last season, tied for second-least in FBS, and Michael Penix Jr. took only five of those. Ryan Grubb and Scott Huff still expect a lot out of their offensive line despite replacing three starters, but maintaining a pace of .54 sacks allowed per game probably isn’t sustainable, considering only 17 teams have done it since 2009. There were 22 teams in FBS last season who allowed 15 or fewer, so that feels like a more realistic bar to set, and would still constitute a pretty stout performance.

20 — takeaways

The Huskies had only 12 last season, which tied for 117th in FBS. A total of 20 would have ranked among the nations’ top 43. That’s still far from elite at taking the ball away, but it’s a reasonable goal for a defense that struggled as it did last season. UW also will face, on average, a more dynamic slate of offenses in 2023, meaning it will be even more important to make game-changing defensive plays rather than rely on that unit to force a punt every time it takes the field.

58 — passes defended

Why 58? That would have ranked among the top-50 teams in FBS last season, which maybe doesn’t sound like a great place for goal-setting … but it would represent an increase of 25 passes defended — basically two more per game — over last season’s worst-in-Power-5 showing.

70 — red-zone touchdown percentage

Washington managed to rank No. 7 nationally in scoring last season despite ranking No. 43 nationally in this statistic. It’s probably no coincidence that each of the top three scoring offenses in FBS — Tennessee, Ohio State and USC — ranked in the top-10 in red-zone touchdown percentage. The Huskies managed touchdowns on 66.18 percent of their trips deep in opponent territory. Bumping that number up to 70 would likely put the UW Huskies among the nation’s top-25 in this statistic, and would be more reflective of the kind of offense that believes it can score 40-plus points per game.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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