Although No.6 Washington football could not pull out a win at a “neutral site” in Atlanta against No.9 Auburn, the Huskies held their own against all odds. After a rough first quarter, the team as a whole settled into the game and captured momentum in the second quarter which they kept until deep in the fourth quarter — before the Tigers’ strong red zone defense forced UW’s miscues.
One of the reasons for this was the steadily improving play of the offensive line throughout the game. This was obviously an area of huge concern going into Saturday’s game because of the untimely injury to the UW’s Preseason All-American left tackle Trey Adams. His back injury was apparently bad enough for him to not even make the trip out to Atlanta, and in his absence the task of protecting Jake Browning’s blindside went to junior Jared Hilbers.
Hilbers, along with O-line starters Luke Wattenberg, Nick Harris, Jaxson Kirkland, and Kaleb McGary, had massive amounts of trouble against the Auburn front seven for the first quarter-and-a-half. Known for their insanely effective run defense, Auburn free rushers were constantly getting through the line to stop running backs Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed before they could get going, and Browning seemed to always be on the run whenever he dropped back to pass.
On the play where he threw his first quarter interception, Hilbers and Wattenberg failed to shift the protection and pick up the blitz coming off the left edge, causing Browning to immediately run out of the pocket and drift to his left. While Browning shouldn’t have by any means thrown the pass that he did for the pick, the point remains that the Auburn pressure got to him essentially right after the ball was snapped, leaving him with no practical options.
As the Tigers’ defense started to lose the adrenaline and edge they had in the first quarter and the Washington line settled in, the Huskies started to look much more comfortable protecting Browning. On the offense’s critical four play, 75-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter, Hilbers and the line gave its quarterback clean pockets to throw in, allowing receivers like Ty Jones and Quentin Pounds to get down the field and make spectacular one-handed catches.
Obviously, the line had its lowlights too. On Browning’s botched option play in the third quarter that led to a fumble and Washington turnover, McGary at RT failed to block the outside linebacker on the strong side of the play, instead opting to block a safety at the second level of the defense. As a result, the linebacker had a free run at Browning and forced him to cough up the rock, preventing the Huskies from putting even three points on the board after a promising drive.
However, one play in particular put Hilbers’ skill on display. On a 2nd and 10, the backup left tackle perfectly picked up a blitz coming on his side and sealed off two defenders from getting to Browning at the same time. This allowed Browning to step up in the pocket cleanly and fire the ball to Aaron Fuller. The pass was incomplete, but the play was an indicator of how much more comfortable he had become blocking for his quarterback in the face of one of the best defenses in the country.
Would the line have played better with Adams in the lineup? Yeah, most likely. But given all of the circumstances that were not in Washington’s favor (facing a Top-10 team and likely best defensive line in the country in game one, playing essentially an SEC road game, etc.), there are certainly some positives to take away from all of this. At least next week, the Huskies will have a much, much easier time blocking for Browning next week against FCS opponent North Dakota.
One thing is clear, though: if Washington wants to make this year’s College Football Playoff, it must win out. And in order to do that, the offensive line must make sure that Gaskin and Ahmed have the space to run wild against opposing defenses, as well as ensure that Browning has more clean pockets than not when facing off against the best units the Pac-12 has to offer. With or without Adams, this line will be held to as high a standard as any in the country, and we have a whole season to see if they are up to the challenge.
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