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Why is Keith Price struggling, and what should the Dawgs do about it?
Listen to any press conference with any UW coach or player, and it's the topic that's bound to come up. What's up with Price? Where's the big, infectiously genuine smile that he had across his face virtually all of last season, no matter the situation? Where's the guy that set school records for touchdown passes, completion percentage, and QB rating as a sophomore, even though he played most of the season with at least one bum knee (and a lot of it with two)?
Any football fan that paid attention to 2011 and the first half of 2012 can see that Price isn't as efficient this season thus far as he was when he came virtually out of nowhere and took the college football world by storm. He's gone from second in the conference in pass efficiency last year down to the bottom third so far in 2012. The good numbers (yards, yards per attempt, TD's, completion percentage, efficiency rating) are all down, and the bad numbers (interceptions, interception rate, sacks) are all up. I'd caution that comparing a full seasons' worth of games against a half season isn't exactly fair, but let's do it anyway.
At this point last season, Price had completed 69.4% (118 of 170) of his passes for 1,466 yards, 21 TD's, and 4 picks for a passer rating of 171.9. That's over 8.6 yards per attempt, and his final season YPA was just under 8.5, which was second in the conference to some guy named Luck. This season, he's completing 61.3% (114 of 186) of his passes for 1,080 yards, 7 TD's, and 6 interceptions for a rating of 116.0. That's good for 5.8 yards per attempt, and that's a big drop. Last year, Price was at his most effective in the first quarter (8.97 YPA, 8 TD's, 167.2 PR) and the fourth quarter (8.99 YPA, 7 TD's, 164.9 PR). He averaged over 10 yards per attempt on first downs for the season, threw 13 TD's, and had a passer rating of 177.6. This year, the first (4.61 YPA, 3 TD's, 106.7 PR) and the fourth (4.5 YPA, 1 TD, 88.9 PR) quarters have been his worst, and first down (5.53 YPA, 1 TD, 3 INT's, 8 sacks, 107.3 PR) has also been his worst. Whether it’s all on Price or is more of a team-wide issue, the fact is that the passing game isn’t starting games or series as strongly as it did last season, and isn’t finishing as well either. That’s a bad combination, especially when you consider that the middle part of the game isn’t necessarily going swimmingly.
One of the most amazing things about Price last year was how effective he was in the red zone. His passer rating was an astronomical 285.5, and he threw for 21 TD’s. He’s still pretty good this season, but his passer rating is down to 160.7, and he only has 4 TD’s. His ability to effectively execute 3rd and long (6+ yards to go) has decreased almost as dramatically. His yards per attempt has dropped from 7.5 in 2011 to 5.5 this season, and his passer rating has fallen from 133.2 to 87.9.
The biggest difference this season from last is the drop in scoring. The Dawgs averaged 33.4 points per game last season. That number is down to 21.3 so far in 2012, among the worst of all FBS teams. Price is obviously a large factor in that, but to put all of the blame on his shoulders is both unfair and false. So, what are the problems with the 2012 version of the Husky offense versus the 2011 one?
1. The offensive line is young (again), and the young guys weren’t super stars to begin with. Reps will help them, but they need to get stronger, and they need a substantial amount of development.
We all know the story here. The loss of Porter in the spring, and injuries to Tanigawa, Kohler, and Riva that have kept them out for virtually the entire season. Unless Kohler gets healthy (which seems unlikely this year, based on his still being on crutches), there’s no realistic combination the Dawgs can put on the field that isn’t one senior, 3 sophomores, and a freshman, or one senior, 2 sophomores and two freshmen. That’s just where we are. There’s nothing that can be done about it. The effort from these guys is good, the majority of them show the potential to be decent Pac 12 linemen at some point in their respective careers, but they simply can’t protect the QB. Even a middling team like San Diego State got more pressure than you’d like.
2. Chris Polk is gone. Jesse Callier is hurt. Sankey has flashed well of late, but there’s next to no depth at running back, and the guys that play simply don’t command the same respect that Polk did.
Again, those are just facts. The rushing attack is down almost 30 yards per game versus last year. Part of that is on the line, but most of it is due to the fact that Polk was able to get yards on his own the past three seasons. Hole or not, he was willing and able to take on tacklers and get positive yards. Play action – a staple of Sarkisian’s offense – and the ability to throw on first down effectively are both significantly easier with a back as consistent as Polk. This season, there isn’t a back like that on the roster. Sankey put together good games against Stanford and Oregon, and looked good on a couple of drives against USC. But teams can take guys out of the box against the Dawgs this year to assist in coverage that, last season, had to stay inside to take on Chris Polk. The Dawgs are averaging about a yard per carry less this season than last.
3. 6 of the top 8 receivers from last year are gone entirely, or have missed virtually the whole season.
Nothing you can do about guys graduating. But when James Johnson is out the entire season, and Kevin Smith is limited by his knee, it hurts. Those are the guys the Dawgs were counting on as the #2 and #3 receivers. They don’t change everything this season. But a healthy Johnson (especially) makes Kasen Williams better, he makes Austin Sefarian-Jenkins better, he makes the running game better, and he definitely makes Keith Price better. There was a play on Saturday against USC as the Dawgs were coming up to the line in the third quarter. I looked at the four receivers they had out there against the Trojans. Williams…good. Same with Sefarian-Jenkins. USC has to respect those guys. They’re legit. But the other two were Cody Bruns and DiAndre Campbell. Look, I like both of those guys. And I’m not trying to knock them. But honestly, how much fear do you think those two put in the hearts of Trojan players and coaches?
The Huskies have next to no downfield passing attack. Most of it is due to the pressure put on Price in the pocket. But the receiving corps has to share some blame as well, and that means everyone. They’ve all struggled to get open, and they’ve all struggled to hold on to the ball. Nobody is immune to criticism in this group.
4. Keith Price is feeling the pressure, both mentally and physically.
Nobody really expected much from Price last season. At least outside of the program. But everything that he touched after a mostly pedestrian start against EWU seemingly turned to gold in the first half of the season. Even with a bad knee that limited his mobility, he had a feel for pressure that kept him from going down at a concerning rate. With a pair of quality senior receivers, a true freshman tight end that didn’t merit a ton of attention early, and a back that could make plays catching the ball out of the backfield, TD’s came in bunches. The wins came. The early success gave him the confidence necessary to keep that smile on his face even when he, and the team, struggled in the second half the season.
And make no doubt about – Price and the offense definitely struggled in the second half of the season. Not just in the results, but in the way they played. Price is obviously a good runner. But in the pocket, I’d say that it’s his "feel" for a rush that kept him from getting sacked as much as his sheer speed, or quickness, or strength. He has the very unique ability to keep his eyes downfield and at the same time sense where the rush is coming from, and where he needs to move to in order to be able to set his feet and deliver the ball. But by the middle of the season, when the competition ramped up, you could actually see the change in where he was looking during the course of a play. As he began to take more and more shots against better defenses, he started looking at the rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield. It’s tough to blame him. But the plays that had been throws down the field to his 3rd and 4th reads became dump-offs to the flats, or throw-aways, or sacks. The Baylor game (who had a genuinely bad defense) gave some hope of what we could expect to see with a healthy Price, and might have done as much harm as good in setting the expectations for Price’s 2012.
The loss of Polk and the receivers, and the injuries on the line left no doubt that this was Price’s team this year. The smile was still there in the fall, but there was definitely more pressure on Keith. And instead of early success, the team struggled both to run the ball and to keep Keith upright. He’s under duress the second he catches a shotgun snap, and getting hit almost every time he takes more than a zero step drop. His eyes are definitely on the rush. He’s missed seeing open receivers down the field. He’s missed checking to guys that were uncovered at the snap. He’s getting beat up, and frustrated, and that’s causing him to press because he wants to succeed and get back to being that loose, confident, smiling guy that not only prepared well, but had an amazing feel for the game. The pressure, internally and externally, mounts.
So, how do the Dawgs get Price untracked? Here’s a couple of ideas.
1. The schedule, and time, are going to take care of a lot of this.
The remaining schedule is much easier than the first half was. Especially from the perspective of the defenses the Husky O is going to face from here on out. Starting with the Arizona game, Price and the rest of the offense should have more success. And they should be able to gain some confidence that comes from putting consecutive drives and consecutive games together. I think we’ve seen some confidence from the offense in spurts this year. The problem is that it’s been too fleeting. The offense needs to feel good for a whole week (following a good game) as opposed to just a series for the defense before retaking the field only to struggle and lose that fragile bit of confidence they just gained. Increased success in the running game should certainly help.
Also, the young guys are going to get older. The hope has to be that the line can take a big step forward with the accumulation of snaps, and that the decrease in the level of competition will also help that happen.
2. Give Price some extra blockers.
Two teams thus far have noted that the Dawgs didn’t do much to slow the pressure of the defensive front four. And while it’s nice to have a lot of receivers running routes because one of them is bound to eventually get open, it’s even nicer for the QB to be able to take a shotgun snap without getting pressure on him at virtually the same instant the ball reaches his hands. Keep a back or a tight end (hell, both) to block. Give Price more time as opposed to another read to make.
3. Keith Price, offensive coordinator.
I’m sure Sarkisian looks for Price’s input to some extent when putting together a game plan. I just don’t know how much. I say, for this one week, Price puts it together. At least the first 15 plays that the coaches like to script. Let Price pick the plays, and the sequence of plays, that give him the most confidence at kickoff. Give him the ownership. Let him, at least for a couple of hours during the week, focus on something besides just executing plays. Let him work on something football-related that’s a little different than what he’s been doing for the last 10 weeks. Let him focus on some of the things that are going on around him instead of just himself, because I really think that that’s part of the reason he’s pressing right now – he’s overly focused to the point that he has tunnel vision to a degree. And give him a series or two each game wherein he gets to call his own plays.
4. Pick up the tempo.
Not necessarily no-huddle, although I think they’ve used it effectively a few times this season and it’s not a bad idea. But get the calls in quicker. Price is a rhythm passer, and you could see a few times in the USC game that, after a positive play, he was frustrated with how long it took to get substitutions in, and to get the play called. Have a plan, get the plays in quicker, and line ‘em back up. It seems pretty clear from watching his body language that that’s what Price wants to do. Get rid of some of the down time and let the game flow a little quicker. Go no-huddle and (coupled with #3 above) let Price call the plays.
5. Shake up his routine.
When he shows up for practice tomorrow, tell him that instead of hitting the field, he’s going to go read to some kids over at the hospital. Or arrange for him to lead a Girl Scout group on a tour of the stadium remodel. Make him wear one of those fluffy rainbow wigs and a "Kiss Me, I’m Irish" shirt to all of his classes for a day. Let him lead the individual QB drills for a day. Make him play safety for a practice instead of QB. Whatever. Just shake things up to the point that it forces him change his focus and, hopefully, relax. Change his mindset. Right now, he’s a lot like a hitter that’s in a bad slump. You never know what one thing or combination of things is going to get his mind right for him to get out of it. But I don’t think the answer is extra batting practice.
6. When it’s all said and done, things aren’t actually as bad as they look right now.
Condotta posted Price’s numbers against Oregon, Stanford, and USC from 2011 and 2012. They actually aren’t that dissimilar from one year to the next. And really, I’d argue that he played a pretty damn good game against Stanford even though it might not appear so statistically. Other than the one really big fumble at the three, the same against USC. Yes, the turnovers in general are a concern. And I’m not going to argue that he didn’t miss some plays that he should’ve made, or that he couldn’t have played much better. But I think the turnovers are the product of the other things going on around more him than they are endemic of some shortcoming in Price’s game. He’s simply trying too hard. And there’s the very realistic expectation that things are going to improve for him, and the rest of the team, in the second half of a schedule that’s not near as daunting as the first.
There’s no doubt the Dawgs need increased productivity from the passing game. Really, from the offense in general. I don’t mean to add to the pressure, but the bulk of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of #17. I think everybody associated with Husky nation has confidence in his ability to get it done. I think Price has it as well. He’s just got to find it again.