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University of Washington Huskies Football

Analysis: Was UW’s rejuvenated rushing output against USC a sign or an anomaly?

Washington running back Dillon Johnson breaks off a big run against the USC defense on Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Johnson ran for 256 yards and four touchdowns in the game.  (Los Angeles Times)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It was billed as a battle between Heisman caliber quarterbacks.

But Saturday’s game didn’t play out that way – which is good news for Washington.

Granted, USC quarterback (and reigning Heisman Trophy winner) Caleb Williams did complete 77% of his passes, throwing for 312 yards and three touchdowns while adding a rushing score. In the aftermath, UW coach Kalen DeBoer lamented that “I thought we had him hemmed up a couple times, but he’s just Houdini out there every once in a while, making people miss and putting the ball where he needed to.”

UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. nearly matched his counterpart, throwing for 256 yards with two passing touchdowns, his first rushing score of the season and an interception.

But in No. 5 Washington’s 52-42 win, Dillon Johnson stole the show.

UW’s junior running back barreled through gaping gaps in the Trojan defense, amassing 256 rushing yards (fifth-most in Husky history) with 9.8 yards per carry and four touchdowns. He beat USC safety Calen Bullock to the pylon for a 52-yard touchdown on third-and-3 in the second quarter. He sprinted down the right sideline for 53 more yards to essentially ice the game on UW’s final drive.

In doing so, he took pressure off Penix and the Husky passing attack.

“It takes the heat off of Mike,” DeBoer explained. “It allows other guys to get touches. DJ had a hot hand, and he was doing what we thought he could do when he came into our program, when we saw the film from a year ago (at Mississippi State). It’s just fun seeing the work he’s put in to get himself in the condition and the speed he’s at now, the physicality he’s playing with. We needed every bit of it. So I’m proud of him, proud of the offensive line too.”

Remember, that offensive line cleared the way for just 13 yards on 13 carries two weeks earlier against Arizona State. It wasn’t much better last week, as Washington mustered 91 rushing yards and 3.4 yards per carry against Stanford’s dreadful defense.

Two days later, UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb conceded: “The execution on some of those plays (against Stanford) was poor. So we’ve got to have a renewed sense of interest in the run game. We’ve got to focus on it more. We’ve got to coach it better. We’ve got to push the guys more. Because there were certainly some hits that should have been had, if I’m being honest.”

Against USC, the hits kept coming.

And to fully appreciate the dominance of UW’s offensive line, consider that Johnson had never exceeded 100 rushing yards in 43 prior collegiate games.

On Saturday, the 6-foot, 218-pound punisher totaled 129 rushing yards … before contact.

“The O-line did a great job of making holes for me, so my day was really kind of easy,” Johnson said with a smile. “I just hit whatever hole was open.”

Added DeBoer: “There’s no reason, when we look at our offensive line and our running backs, that we shouldn’t be able to run the football. So that challenge was put out to them early in the week, showing them the areas where we had just missed and what we’re capable of. When you start churning and gaining that momentum, it’s tough to stop.”

But can UW maintain that momentum against a far more formidable defense?

We’ll see on Saturday, when No. 5 Washington (9-0) hosts No. 18 Utah (7-2) inside Husky Stadium. The Utes are unsurprisingly one of the Pac-12’s premier run stoppers, ranking sixth nationally in rushing defense (81.22 yards allowed per game) and 14th in opponent yards per carry (3.05). But a balanced attack would relieve some pressure from Penix, who has surrendered a red zone interception in each of the Huskies’ last three games.

Johnson’s 256 rushing yards, by the way, were the third-most ever by a USC opponent. That indefensible Trojan defense currently ranks 120th out of 133 teams nationally in rushing (186.5 yards allowed per game) and 114th in opponent yards per carry (4.84). This was also the first time the Huskies produced more rushing yards (316) than passing yards (256) in a game since DeBoer arrived, dating back to a win at Stanford in 2021.

But history suggests UW’s surge may be sustainable. Last season, the Husky rushing attack erupted down the stretch – producing 656 yards, 6.9 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns in their last three games.

The USC game may be a spoiler or an anomaly.

Either way, it was fun to watch.

“The last two weeks we hadn’t played up to our standards, and we wanted to come out and be the most physical team,” Johnson said. “I said before, ‘The most physical team is going to win this game,’ and we were that.”