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The Brotherhood: Back From the Extended Bye....

Just because I don't care doesn't mean I don't understand.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Darin Leads it Off:

I’m not sure the Colorado game gives us much to talk about. Frankly, I feel for the Buffalos. Watching them miss tackles and blocks and just basically struggle reminded me of our own not-so-distant past. I hope they get their program healthy. Best of luck to them on that.

Let’s talk play calling for a minute. There’s some grumbling from certain unnamed commentators, hoping that Sarkisian doesn’t out-think himself with respect to the game plan at UCLA. The idea being that UCLA seems to be stronger against the run than the pass, and this might induce the Dawgs to come out throwing, like they did at Arizona State, to pick an example. This is a reasonable concern.

What should be the strategy when balancing run and pass? The optimal strategy should be to call plays such that the marginal effectiveness is the same for any play that you might call in a given the situation. This same idea applies to a wide range of decisions: whether to throw a fastball or a curve, whether to kick for the left corner of the goal or the right, whether to serve to your opponent’s forehand or his backhand. The point is that he doesn’t know what you’re going to do, and you don’t know what he’s going to defend against, so you should both choose such that it doesn’t matter what your opponent does – you are ambivalent.

This is a game theory concept called “mixed strategy.” It’s weird and complicated, but the basic idea is that you should randomize your play calls based on your strengths and your opponent’s. And the results aren’t always what you’d expect. Let’s imagine that the payoffs in yards gained look like this:


If we run or pass when they’re set up for it, no gain. If we pass when they’re stopping the run, we get 15 yards. Likewise, if we run when they’re thinking pass, 8 yards.

This looks like we should throw the ball! Nope. The temptation is to say, "They can't defend the pass, so we'll pass." But then you should expect them to say, "We haven't defended the pass well, so we should expect them to throw, so we'll adjust our defense to better stop it." Of course, you should expect them to say that, so you'll say, "Since they haven't defended the pass well, they'll expect us to pass. We should run." And that's exactly what they'd expect you to think, so they'll be ready for the run. And so on.

This is all over-thinking. As a coach, you should just develop your game plan, and then run your offense. Don’t think so much. It turns out, when you do the math in this made-up example, that the Huskies should run about 65 percent of the time. That should be the extent of it. Beyond getting that mix right, it doesn’t matter what plays you call. The real world involves more than two plays and two defenses, of course -- there are infinitely many situations and considerations. But based on this kind of thinking, it seems clear to me that Sarkisian et al should do all their strategizing by, say, Tuesday. After that… Just run your offense.

Brad's Up:

Man, I totally agree with you about Colorado. I feel bad for them too. It really isn’t all that much fun to beat up on a team like that. In a lot of regards, Sarkisian comes off as the sort of guy – this offensive mind – that would want to score as many points as he could, and wouldn’t really have a problem taking his frustrations out on a bad team like the Buffs. I have a lot of respect for his willingness to simply get the lead he thinks he needs to win a game, and then effectively playing out the clock.

Okay, I get your takeaway. And I agree. But as one of those card-carrying grumblers, I have a couple of questions with regards to what you’re saying. First, what is the Huskies’ offense? Second, do you think that Sarkisian does this (just run his offense), or do you agree that he tends to outthink himself? I’m not sure if you consider yourself a member of the group you reference or not….

For weeks and weeks, I really hoped the answer to the first question was the offense we saw the first couple of weeks, and that somehow Sarkisian would find his way back there. That’s obviously not the case. Not in run/pass balance and not in the types of plays called (especially in the passing game). The Huskies are going to throw the quick bubble screens, but the bulk of the rest of the passing game is intermediate to deep. And in that regard, I think the success of the last two games is a bit of a red herring. I’m concerned that it’s going to inspire false confidence in the Huskies’ ability to protect Price long enough to make those throws down the field. Did you know that, in every conference game this season, the Huskies have allowed their opponent more sacks than each averages so far this season? Every team has gotten pressure. Every one. The Huskies simply can’t consistently protect Keith Price in the pocket.

As to the second question, I’d point to (in particular) the games against Arizona last year and Arizona State this year. Like I said, I can’t exactly tell where you fall on Sarkisian’s play calling, but in those two games, Sarkisian clearly saw something that he at least thought he could take advantage of with a specific game plan, and both came at the expense of neglecting one of the best rushers in the nation until it was too late to do anything about it. I took Sarkisian at his word before the season that 2013 was going to be about the Huskies just running their offense. I thought he got away from that in the middle of the season. But now it’s pretty clear that that’s exactly what’s happening. I just don’t like it all that much compared to what I believe it could and should be. And while I’ll admit that he knows a lot more about football in general and his team specifically, I can’t get over the notion that he’s developed a certain point of view, and is unwilling or unable to step back and see if it’s actually correct. In the heat of the moment, it happens. Even to smart people. Maybe especially to smart people, that genuinely believe in what they’re doing.

I had an interesting conversation with the most well-connected guy I know in Husky football after the game Saturday. I was complaining (yet again) about the lack of running back rotation. He told me that Jesse Callier has been entirely unimpressive in practice the last several weeks, and that Dwayne Washington puts the ball on the ground way too much in drills and in team stuff. The coaches don’t have a lot of confidence in either one right now, and that’s why the only ball carrier we see (and are likely to see, outside of garbage time) is Bishop Sankey. Bummer.

Darin Responds:

I’m in the unnamed grumblers’ camp, but maybe not for all the reasons you might be. For example, although Arizona State was a disaster, the deep passes early were probably the right call, assuming Price could make the throws. I’m not sure what happened after that, but it seemed like the game was over before we knew it. I really don’t fault Sarkisian for having a game plan – that’s the right thing to do. I fault him, like you do, for sometimes seeming to have tunnel-vision in the heat of the moment. I would say, Steve, when the game is on the line and you need just the exactly precisely ideal play for a particular moment, you should close your eyes, point to a random spot on your laminated card, and call that play. The game plan is the important part. Beyond that, what matters is being unpredictable.

It’s hard for me to figure out why games like ASU this year and Arizona State last year happen. I mean, even if you think both of those teams were better than the Huskies, nobody thinks they were 30 points better. How did those games go so sideways? There’s clearly a snowball effect – once it starts raining, it pours. Why do you think that is? Is it psychological? Is it about “matching up,” per the discussion elsewhere on the Dawgpound board? Is it just bad luck?

If I could engage in a little pop-psychology…. Steve Sarkisian is a young guy, trying to establish himself as a Div I coach. He’s got a reputation as a smart play-caller and a quarterback guru. And deservedly so: his credentials are great. However, I suspect he’s got a nagging sense that he should live up to the hype, that he can play-call and quarterback-shepherd his way to a Pac-12 championship. Well, specifically, I think he sometimes senses that on Saturdays. In reality, his work is mostly done by Friday night.

Actually, his work is mostly done by September 1, but you get my point.

Anyway, I think that’s the dynamic, rather than that he’s married to a certain point of view. Here’s what I like about Sarkisian, though. I am pretty sure he knows this and is working to fix it. And I think he’s the competent sort who can actually reflect and make changes – unlike most other coaches we’ve seen lately. Sarkisian is on his own learning curve even as he’s building the Huskies back up. It adds a complicating factor to the progress of the program, but on the long term, a self-healing process (which is how I see Sarkisian’s coaching) is far superior to a robust process that isn’t as adaptable (which is how I see hiring a “proven” coach who isn’t as smart).

Why do I always end up talking about Sarkisian? He’s handsome, sure, but he’s not that handsome.

I didn’t know we were the team pass-rushers were getting healthy against. Hm… I wonder why nobody’s ever mentioned that our offensive line might be under-performing a bit. This seems like the kind of insightful tidbit the fans and media would like to know. Are you aware of any discussion about the offensive line?

That comment about the backup running backs is pretty depressing. I’ve been underwhelmed with Callier, too, just based on what I’ve seen. I’d say that Washington has clearly outplayed him, absent the fumbles. Fumbling is overrated by coaches, by the way. It’s way better to have a potent offense, even if it turns the ball over once in a while, than to play in fear of turnovers. I suppose I’d be doing what Sarkisian is doing. A great back who doesn’t fumble is better than a good back who might. Ride Sankey. But I like Washington a lot. He reminds me of Erik Dickerson from back in the day. He’s huge, he’s fast, he’s smooth. He used to be a receiver, so presumably he can catch. He’s a weapon.

The Moneyline for UCLA is about 130, which suggests about a 45 percent chance we’ll win. It’s in Pasadena, so I suppose that sounds about right. It sure would be nice to win this game.

Brad Concludes:

Most of his work is done by September 1st. I totally agree. And it’s because of that that I wonder why we see so much “game planning.” Personally, I think the emphasis on matchups is largely overrated. The Huskies do some things well on offense. They struggle with others. It seems relatively simple to me. Perfect what you do well. Either mitigate what you don’t do well, or don’t make it an emphasis.

I’m not actually saying that Sarkisian should line the team up week in and week out and run the same 15 or 20 plays over and over. Well, actually, I sort of am. I think the tweaks should largely be minor, not diametric.

I agree with your psychology. And really that’s what I mean – I think his point of view is that he should be adding a tremendous amount of value to the offense because of his expertise. And he largely does. Sometimes though, I think he just needs to simplify the value he adds. Yes, he’s on his own learning curve. And I’m mostly confident that he can eventually get “there,” wherever that might ultimately be.

The offensive line. Sigh. Major sigh.

Maybe fumbling is overrated. I don’t know. But it’s a bad thing, no matter what. It’s one that I can mostly understand, though. Even if it only happens once a game, and even if there’s a 50% chance you’ll end up getting the ball back, there’s still a 50% chance you won’t. And you just can’t predict when it’s going to happen. I like Washington a lot, too. It’s probably not something that gets “fixed” this season (both the fumbling as well as the coaches’ trust in him), but I hope it’s not something that follows him beyond this year.

The spread has gone from UCLA by 6.5 to UCLA by 2.5. People think UW’s the better team, but that home field is the deciding factor. 45% odds sound about right. I’m taking the Dawgs.