Darin is philosophical
Well, it would have been nice to win one of those games. But at the outset of the season, I would have taken 4-2 at this point, especially since the Dawgs have played well. It doesn't feel like they played well when you look at the scoreboard, of course, but objectively the team is a fair jump better than last year. After watching the Oregon game, I feel more comfortable with my conclusion that the Huskies probably are a legitimate top-15 team. Sagarin agrees. http://www.usatoday.com/sports/ncaaf/sagarin/
So let's get to it. What happened on Saturday? I'll tell you what I think. The Huskies ran into a very, very good team. A mature team, with good players at every position, with no weak spots. I suspect we have as much talent as Oregon below 280 pounds. It's the guys bigger than that where we fall short. Oregon beat us up, and by the end of the game it showed. It wasn't like past years where the Huskies had their tongues hanging out and needed mercy. But a better, stronger team asserted itself over four quarters. If I were a Duck fan (knock on wood) I'd feel pretty good about that win.
The conversation we had last week about linemen came to a head at 3:30, October 12, 2013. That's about the time it was clear we couldn't protect, we couldn't get pressure safely, and we couldn't hold our ground against the inside zone. For my part, I am optimistic that our maturing, improving program and our maturing, improving coaching staff will correct this problem, but it won't be fixed this year. Or next. It's going to take time. Meanwhile, let's count our blessings: The Dawgs are a solid second-tier team. Just like they were consistently during the Don James era. It's too bad there are multiple top-tier teams in our conference making us look bad, but that's just how it is.
The Dawgs' defense is good. It doesn't look it when you give up 600 yards and 45 points. But partly those totals are due to our improvement. Oregon played hard the whole game. It wasn't over until the end. I know nobody likes to talk about moral victories and close only counts in horseshoes and dancing, but I don't really care. We knew we weren't going to win the Pac-12 this year, so signs of improvement are important. Arizona State is next. This game is important because it's a chance for the Dawgs to show that, although they're not quite at Oregon's level yet, they've left the middle of the pack behind. We should beat Arizona State, so it's important to go out and do so convincingly.
A few random thoughts.
• Nice to see the bubble-screen featured again.
• We ran a lot of inside zone. Why do you suppose that is? Based on my subjective recollection, we had decent success outside, but we ran it less.
• I need a macro for this. ctrl+alt+b... "Bishop Sankey is an incredible running back. Clearly one of the best ever at UW and one of the best in the country. It's a joy to watch him."
• I think how we use Austin Seferian-Jenkins is weird. He's a great tight end, not just the biggest slot receiver ever. The touchdown he caught was a fantastic traditional tight-end catch. Tony Gonzales. I don't see why there's not a role for a tight end who lines up in a three-point stance and run blocks sometimes.
• More failure on kicks. With starters playing. I don't know what to tell you.
• Fewer penalties. Not a win. Oh, well.
• I thought the conventional wisdom against a zone-read team was to get penetration from the defensive line. I need to watch the replay, but I think we did a lot of two-gapping, which doesn't generally lead to penetration. Did you notice Hau'oli Kikaha's stance? He looks like a fullback -- butt down, head up. It must be on purpose, but I don't quite understand it. Is the idea to keep Mariota in front of the defense?
• Speaking of Marcus Mariota, wow. What an athlete. What a quarterback.
Yep, Oregon is just better. They were better in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and they had the better QB (although it’s debatable how much “better” Marcus Mariota is versus how much easier his job is due to the line play. But he’s better, no doubt.).
I don’t like to say this, but Oregon is the best team in the country. They’re better than Alabama. More complete. And Mariota is going to win the Heisman. I hope he takes it with him to the NFL with him in the 2014 draft. But I think I read he's only 19. So he probably won't. Damn.
Okay, so the line doesn’t get better this year. Or next. Why? What’s their problem? Is it just a lack of talent or the right kind of athleticism? If that’s the case, it’s not going to get better for years, because I’m not sure the right group of guys is on the roster. Are they not strong enough? Are there issues with the strength program? Is there a lack of development? We’re going to continue to go round and round on this until it gets better. I don’t know this to be a fact, but it sure feels like there are teams out there that are getting better production from their line with equal or even lesser talent. I fully admit that could just be the jaded homer-ness of almost exclusively following the success and failure of “my” team.
Here’s my question – Why has the passing game looked so much different the last few weeks than at the beginning of the season? Yeah, there was a little more of the bubble screen action. But think back to Boise State. That action was run on more than half of the passes Keith Price threw. And the line formed a true pocket on fewer than half the attempts; they mostly engaged in the same zone-blocking scheme that they use on running plays. Now, we’re seeing that more traditional, slower-developing passing game with a true pocket almost exclusively. I get that Oregon’s (in particular) and Stanford’s secondaries are far, far better than Boise State. But would you let those cornerbacks cover your receivers, or would you rather force them to come up and make a one-on-one tackle in space 10 or 15 times a game? I want to see that short passing game, with one and three step drops again. The screens, sure, but also the counters to that. The hitches and the curls and the slants. I want to see the passing game that mitigates the weakness of the line instead of the one that exacerbates it.
I want to get Austin Sefarian-Jenkins involved, but not at the expense of changing the offense. I fully agree that there are ways he can be utilized, but if it means fewer opportunities that maybe cover more ground at a time, I’m all for it. The offense needs to focus on making the right play instead of forcing the ball to certain players. They (mostly meaning Kasen Williams and Sefarian-Jenkins) will end up getting their touches simply because they’re good.
Playing the Ducks is mostly a pick-your-poison affair defensively. Since that’s the case, maybe the best bet is to continue to play to your strengths instead of trying to adjust to the opponent as much as Wilcox did, which is the coverage from the corners. Maybe it would’ve meant even more big plays given up. But maybe it would’ve allowed the defense to play a little faster and a little more aggressively. I don’t know. The Ducks are just so damn good. I think the offense sort of did the same thing – instead of just lining up and playing, Sarkisian got too involved with the chess match. He slowed down the offense so much by changing personnel as often as he did.
Arizona State is a must-win game. A loss kills all of the momentum of the first half of the season, and opens up all of the old wounds from Sarkisian’s first four years here (road play, losing streaks, fragile confidence, etc.). A loss removes virtually all margin for error for the rest of the season, and there’s too many games left to be in that situation. And I think Keith Price might be getting close to a tipping point. He’s been pummeled the last two weeks. To his credit, he battled through it against Stanford. He didn’t against Oregon. He was hesitant, and uncomfortable. I’m sure the thumb bothered him. But mentally, he wasn’t the same guy back there. That has to get headed off, like right away. And I also think there’s a danger of Sarkisian falling into his old ways of overthinking the offense. This team needs a huge dose of confidence. And a return to the basics.
I'm not so sure Oregon is better than Alabama. I'm not saying they aren't, but I think Alabama has more sheer talent on their roster. I can never find the four-year composite recruiting rankings when I'm looking for them, so I'm going by memory, here. Incidentally, thinking in terms of recruiting as a predictor of wins, we should all hope USC makes a bad hire. Nobody in the Pac-12 recruits anywhere close to USC. If they're right, they're going to be hard to beat.
What's the problem with the line? I think it's recruiting. I'm a determinist: I think who you recruit matters more than what you do with them. Good players in high school tend to be good players in college. Not a 1:1 correlation, of course (just ask Mike Reilly), but good as a first approximation. Whatever the cause of the Dawgs' slow recruiting along the lines, I expect it will work itself out as things progress. I know nobody likes to hear more calls for patience, but if Sarkisian can start to win even with a flawed team, like he's got now, he'll stand a good shot of recruiting better. Then we might get an un-flawed team.
You make a good point about all that pocket passing. I don't understand it either. Hugh Millen apportioned part of the blame for the lack of success to Keith Price for holding the ball too long instead of throwing with timing. "You gotta take your five-step drop, stick your back leg in the ground, take one hitch, and deliver the ball. If you take two hitches, you've blown it." Or something like that. When you're trying to beat a team like Oregon, all this stuff adds up.
I can't explain why our defensive philosophy changed like it did. If I were a defensive coordinator getting ready to face Oregon, I'd tell my offense, "Listen, do whatever you have to to score on every drive. Never punt, don't worry about field position. Oregon is going to score on us; we're just hopping to stop them a few times. We're going to gamble like crazy on the hope that we can string together a few big plays and get the ball back. It'll be three-and-out or a touchdown. We'll give up big plays, but we won't let them run us to death. We'll be just as likely to stop them in the fourth quarter as in the first because they won't have long drives. If we can keep up offensively, we'll have a chance at the end." I get the idea of keeping everything in front of you and making the offense execute lots of plays. But that's part of Oregon's strategy! They want to run lots of plays, so that by the end of the fourth quarter they can score at will, e.g., last Saturday.
Were you shocked to hear we've lost seven straight to ASU? Were you shocked to hear we were three-point underdogs? I was.
Brad Wraps it up
The question is, Do we think Sarkisian can fix the line recruiting? Maybe he can, if things get better. But there’s the risk that things won’t actually get better until he fixes the line recruiting. And not being able to “fix” the line, either through recruiting, development, or mitigation, is a fireable offense. Especially since the rest of the team is good enough to win now.
My issue is less the timing in the pocket as it is the amount of pocket passing, period. Why? Where’s the short game? I get that the competition has gotten better, but instead of sticking with what worked so well early (and presumably, what they spent the majority of their time in the spring, summer and fall camp working on), and developing the counters off those plays, they’ve scrapped them almost entirely of late. It’s time to shrink the playbook (on both sides of the ball) instead of expanding it. So, in that regard, I don't necessarily disagree with your take on the defensive approach against Oregon. The danger with it, of course, is getting down by 30 at halftime if the offense can't match them. It's a gamble either way. If I was Wilcox, I probably would've done what I do well instead of changing to try and outscheme Oregon. It's definitely what I'd do against a far less potent attack in ASU.
ASU can throw the ball pretty well, but they’re a below average running team. Their offensive line isn’t bad, but it’s nowhere near as good as Oregon’s or Stanford’s. And they’ve got one good receiver in Jaelen Strong, and a bunch of ordinary ones. Their second and third leading receivers are running backs (although DJ Foster has spent most of his time split wide this season), and the fourth leading receiver is a tight end. It seems to me like the strategy here has got to be the same as it’s been the first 5 games – lots of man coverage underneath with the single high safety. It’s not a time to get fancy.
Even with the penalties, and the bad special teams play, this is a game the Huskies win if they just do what they do well. I’m not overly concerned with the game being on the road. But I am concerned with the coaching staff outthinking themselves.