Much has been debated in this space concerning the prospects for UW Football in 2015. No matter where you fall in that debate, there are a few unequivocal truths about this football team that must be acknowledged. The most obvious being that Chris Petersen has on his hands a very young football team. On his recent interview with Brock and Salk, Petersen discussed the challenges that being young present to a staff that prides itself on building a strategy around developing players.
Other challenges facing this team going into 2015 include the lack of continuity on the offensive line, the replacement of defensive front seven starters that produced most of UW's turnovers and sacks in 2014, an uncertain situation at QB, and a WR corps that includes just four players who played in a game a year ago. None of these challenges ensure that UW is destined for doom and gloom in the season ahead, but they certainly provide for an agenda that the coaching staff must pay attention as they make their preparations.
That agenda got me thinking about the in-season metrics that would best show progress, or a lack thereof, against those challenges once the team takes the field in the fall. I know that stats, in particular those of the "advanced" variety, often can spool up this forum like no other subject. Still, thinking ahead about the metrics that we can pay attention to in order to assess how well UW is doing in managing the challenges that we can all agree exist sounds like a great subject for an Offseason List. So, I present my top 5 most important UW Football stats (of the non-advanced variety) to monitor in 2015.
5. Turnover Margin
You are no doubt thinking, "Thank you, Captain Obvious" given that TO Margin is a vital metric to every team every season.
Of course, you would be correct. There is a very high correlation between success in this metric and Wins/Losses. UW ranked third in the PAC12 a year ago in total TO margin and second in TOs forced (Oregon was first in both categories), with 16 fumbles gained (2nd) and 13 interceptions gained (3-way tie for 2nd).
I won't insult your intelligence by claiming it is "extra important" for UW. But I would make a few points of elaboration.
First, UW seniors in 2014 recorded 7 of 13 interceptions and 11 of 18 forced fumbles. That is a huge amount of playmaking that has to be replaced defensively, not to mention a certain amount of luck (16 of 18 fumble recoveries) that must be compensated for.
Second, just imagine for a moment how poorly UW's season could have gone in 2014 if it hadn't generated all of those extra possessions through that turnover margin advantage. Many of the same factors that plagued UW last season (we'll get to those in a moment) project to be issues in 2015. Thus, turnover margin will prove to be just as critical a metric going forward.
4. Receptions by Wide Receivers
The dearth of experienced Wide Receivers on the 2015 roster is a critical issue for UW that must be addressed. Unfortunately, Chris Petersen's options for doing so are limited to pretty much a single option: develop your players. UW desperately needs three to four young players to emerge as factors alongside the reliable Jaydon Mickens if the UW offense is going to even match last year's humble production levels, much less exceed it.
To "emerge as factors" doesn't only mean catching passes. UW's offense can't function at all if its receivers don't perform other vital roles such as blocking down on the perimeter, taking CBs off the line by winning their 1:1 battles at the snap and drawing safety attention through detailed and effective route running. All that said, let's not sugar-coat this. These guys must also catch passes. Last season, UW receivers caught a paltry 159 receptions with 96 of those being made by players that are no longer on the roster.
I toyed with the idea of including Yards Per Attempt in this spot. It's a vital metric that measures both risk-taking and pass game productivity. However, I think UW receivers must be specific factors in 2015. Jonathan Smith and his quarterback can't just rely on dump-offs to Running Backs and safety-valves to Tight Ends if they are going to stretch defenses and create room for the running game. A few receiving playmakers must emerge. The only way for that to happen is to make a concerted effort to complete passes to them.
3. Red Zone TD %
Last season, UW tied for last place (with Colorado and Utah) in trips inside an opponent's red zone with 45. Let that soak in for a second. Tied for last with a couple of the worst offensive teams in not just the Pac, but the nation. The good news was that UW was quite efficient (believe it or not) in scoring in the red zone. Their 89% was good for third in the PAC. Unfortunately, their 53% TD percentage was 11th in the conference and an order of magnitude worse than USC's PAC 12 leading 76% (damn you, Sark).
It is not unreasonable to expect UW to again struggle getting the ball into an opponent's red zone in 2015. There are not any emerging factors in play for this offense that scream "turnaround" when it comes to consistently moving the chains between the 20s. Therefore, UW must have upper-tier PAC 12 productivity in TD conversion performance when they get inside the opponent's 20.
The pressure will be all on Jonathan Smith to develop his play-calling strategy, to coach / prepare his QB to succeed in tight spaces, and to focus on developing reliable red zone targets (hello Darrell Daniels, Lavon Coleman and Brayden Lenius) who have the physical skills to make tough plays in tight quarters. Relying on scoring TDs from outside of 20 yards, as this offense did last year, simply won't cut it in 2015. This is particularly true given the season-ending injury to John Ross.
2. QB Sacks Against
The replacement of six senior offensive linemen from a season ago is a monumental task for Husky offensive line coach Chris Strausser. Many have argued that the crew from last year "wasn't that good" and, therefore, the nature of that task shouldn't be that difficult. I find that argument pretty absurd, but I am on record as saying that I think this offensive line can be pretty serviceable if the upperclassmen currently penciled-in to start can stay healthy.
"Serviceable" is the key phrase here. Of those upperclassmen, none currently project as an NFL caliber talent or, for that matter, an all-conference contender. One could argue that was the case a season ago, even with guys like Micah Hatchie and Colin Tanigawa included in the debate. Even still, UW managed to achieve just 2 sacks allowed per game. That was good for third best in the PAC 12 - better than some upper tier teams like Oregon, USC and Arizona.
Pass blocking and sack prevention are not the sole domains of the offensive line, but it certainly starts there. For UW to have a chance to move the ball, this new offensive line simply must give its QB a chance to stay on his feet and to make his progressions. If they can stay in that same 2 per game range, then that would be a good sign that this new unit is coming together fairly well.
1. Points per Possession
This is the pudding in which Husky fans will find the proof. Unlike other teams in the PAC, the Huskies don't have an established superstar or a fool-proof scheme to rely upon in putting points up on the board. The Dawgs are going to have to cobble together scoring from all angles if they are to keep pace with the better teams in the PAC. They are going to have to hit on a few explosive plays, create special teams points, exploit the talents of a few two-way players, ride the hot-hand, convert some defensive TDs and achieve sustained levels of unexpected efficiency against good teams in order to generate scores throughout the season.
It won't be easy for fans to endure. But, on the flip side, it won't be predictable for opponents.
Since I do not expect UW to be an offensive juggernaut in a league with several, the Dawgs are going to have to crush the points per possession metric. I don't think that focusing on any other points related metric - such as run game efficiency, passing efficiency, explosive plays or scoring prevention - is going to apply to a team that doesn't have a defining identity. Points per possession is the only one that we can rely upon to measure how well that UW is doing in "pulling out all the stops" in order to succeed.