This is the eighth entry in an ongoing series between Ryan Priest and Alex Hyres. Each week during the season, we'll look at the state of the Husky football program, break down the major story lines surrounding the team, and give predictions for the games. This week, the Dawgs have the week off. Our previous posts are here: Wrapping up fall camp, Hawaii (Week One), Hawaii (Week Two), Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State, Stanford.
Ryan: Last week, you wrote that Washington's win over Georgia State was "another less than impressive victory." On Saturday, the Huskies made their first tally under a new category.
File this one under "missed opportunities."
Start with DiAndre Campbell's block in the back nullifying John Ross' kick return for a touchdown; then move to John Timu's dropped interception that would surely have gone for six; and don't forget the offense going three-and-out on its first three drives. The list goes on and on—and that's just in the first quarter.
The offense's anemic showing was perhaps the most concerning aspect on display Saturday, because it plays so well into Washington's seasonal narrative. Believe it or not, the season is nearly halfway completed (side note: How is it that every year, I'm amazed at how quickly the games go by? You'd think I would have learned the pattern by now), and the Dawgs' identity is more or less established: They are a just-short-of-elite-level defense with four potential first-round NFL draft picks, and an offense that doesn't inspire any amount of confidence whatsoever.
We all knew the Huskies would likely take a step back on offense after losing Keith Price, Bishop Sankey, Kevin Smith and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but the collective wisdom held that Steve Sarkisian had recruited the skill positions well enough that Washington could take advantage of its most experienced offensive line in years to keep the drop-off from being too steep. It seems clear that the combined one-two punch of losing key players and installing new schemes has set this offense behind further than most had expected.
What it comes down to is this: Against an upper-echelon team like Stanford, the Huskies needed to play mistake-free football to give themselves a chance to win, and that simply didn't happen.
Alex: I agree with you that the Stanford game was a missed opportunity. The loss was a missed opportunity to catapult into the rankings, to gain relevance on the national scene, to make an impression on recruits, and to stay in the running for the Pac-12 championship. While I believe the Huskies missed out on those opportunities, I know there will be more opportunities this season
The bye week couldn't come at a better time. After a physically and emotionally draining contest against Stanford, the Huskies will have time to recover and to prepare for the season's remaining games. Coaches will be able to self-scout—identifying strengths and weaknesses—and to recruit next year's class; meanwhile, players will be able to self-evaluate and to rest their bodies.
During the bye week, as the coaches self-scout and the players self-evaluate, the Huskies need to find answers to the offense's inconsistency. Unlike the defense that has—for the most part—steadily improved since the Hawaii game, the offense continues to be erratic.
Some fans believe the Huskies should re-open the quarterback competition. A case could be constructed to back that claim. Cyler Miles played his worst game as a Husky. He looked tentative in his run and pass reads, struggled to find open receivers, and seemed unsure about whether to stay in the pocket. In summation, he played like the worst Pac-12 quarterback (Kevin Hogan, you're no longer the weakest link—at least this week).
Playing against the number one defense in the country will make a lot of quarterbacks look terrible, which is why I believe it's too early for a quarterback controversy. Miles has played well enough in his brief career to deserve some patience. Anyone thinking about Jeff Lindquist should re-watch the second half against Hawaii before saying he deserves another chance. Anyone thinking about Troy Williams should remember that he wasn't inserted into the Hawaii game during Lindquist's abysmal performance. Anyone thinking about KJ Carta-Samuels or Jake Browning—well, I can't help you there.
Miles will improve and he's only part of the problem. The running game has yet to be consistent. The receivers need to run better routes, and make better adjustments based on coverage. The offensive coaches need to construct a simplified game plan for everyone that plays to the offense's strengths.
What did you think of the play-calling and coaching decisions during the Stanford game?
Ryan: First of all, though I was quite adamant on Saturday that Jonathan Smith and Coach Pete needed to take the keys to the car away from Miles, I've softened my stance considerably since then. Such is the danger of making absolute statements during the heat of the game under the influence of multiple rounds of Elliot Ness.
There's no doubt that Cyler Miles is among the conference's most athletically talented quarterbacks, especially when it comes to his speed. Put into the right system—one that stresses the zone-read, and utilizes play-action to clear defenders from his running or scrambling lanes—there's no reason to think that Miles couldn't succeed.
We're quickly learning, though, that he's at best a below-average throwing quarterback. Observers have known since Miles' high school days that he has a wonky throwing motion, but his emergence as Washington's No. 1 QB has made that deficiency in his game glare all the more brightly. Simply put, there are absolutely zero legitimate excuses for why the Huskies rank dead last in the conference in passing at 162.6 yards per game. The challenges facing the Huskies in this area are substantial: The offensive line needs to dramatically improve their execution of pass protection schemes; the running backs need to do a far better job of picking up blitzes; the receivers need to do a better job of creating separation between themselves and their defenders; Miles needs to learn to step up into the pocket and not take off like a bat out of hell at the first sign of a defender's shadow; and finally, when he throws the ball, Miles needs to do a substantially better job of throwing with accuracy, and put the ball in an area where his receivers have a legitimate shot of coming down with the rock.
But while the offense's players clearly need to work on their execution, it's equally obvious that their coaches need to put them in a better position to succeed. In his first Pac-12 game, Chris Petersen made an astoundingly bad decision when he opted to run a fake punt from the Washington 47 yard line with less than eight minutes to play, on a day in which his punter averaged 52 yards per kick and the defense hadn't given up a single point in the second half. To his credit, Pete immediately owned up to the mistake, taking full responsibility after the game and again at his Monday press conference. However, that doesn't change the fact that Washington's coach, the only two-time winner of the Paul "Bear" Bryant Coach of the Year Award, made what can only be generously described as an egregious lapse in judgment at the game's key juncture. Dawg fans will have little patience for Coach Pete if he doesn't learn quickly from that mistake.
I've already written way too many words, so I'll leave it here regarding Jonathan Smith: He needs to find out how to put his offense into a position to play defenses that play with a pulse, and quickly, if he wants to retain his play-calling duties in 2015 and beyond.
Alex: The more I reflect on the game, the more blame I place on the coaches. Obviously I can't absolve the players completely—they did play the game on the field—but for the first time this season, it felt like the coaches inhibited the team's chances to win via a few key decisions throughout the game.
Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith never seemed to find a rhythm in his play calling. In fairness to him, most offensive coordinators don't have many plays on the call sheet for third-and-15 or -25; however, the Huskies weren't in those situations every down. The offense seemed unsure about the game plan. While the lack of fluidity and dynamism on offense could be attributed to Stanford, the offense didn't seem to play towards their strengths. If the defense is getting into the backfield almost unabated, throw a screen to the running back. If the defense is loading the box to stop the run, take some shots down the field. In both cases—even if you don't hit on a big play—you remind the defense that a big play is still possible. I'm not saying the Huskies would have won this game for certain with different play calls, but I don't think Jonathan Smith was creative enough in his play calling for the Huskies to have a chance against Stanford.
Petersen's decision to fake punt in the fourth quarter was terrible. He may have believed that the offense needed a spark. He may have believed the defense needed a break. He may have even believed that everything Shaq Thompson touches turns to touchdowns. Ultimately, it didn't matter what he believed: His decision effectively ended the game once Thompson failed to convert.
I'm always hesitant to criticize coaching decisions made during the game's flow. During the contest, coaches are tasked with making difficult decisions with many variables and scarce time. However, coaches don't just think about these situations when they are presented during the game. Petersen must have thought that he might need to make a bold call to win this game, and perhaps he thought that was the time.
I don't have problem with bold play calls; however, the situation didn't seem right. You've already alluded to the context, but I think it bears repeating that the game was tied, due to Shaq's defensive touchdown. One could make the argument that the Huskies had just as much of a chance to win the game on a defensive touchdown as an offensive touchdown. Based on Coach Pete's press conferences, he seems to think that he would handle that situation differently than he did on Saturday, given the opportunity.
Lucky for him and us, the season won't end on that note. With Oregon's loss last night, the hunt for the North Division's bid to the Pac-12 championship is far from over.