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Three Things We Learned: Auburn

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An in-depth look at the biggest takeaways from last weekend’s narrow loss

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game-Auburn at Washington Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

1. The WRs can make big plays downfield

It may not have been the #1 concern for everyone but concerns over the receiving corps were definitely at the forefront of most fans’ worry lists entering the year. In consecutive off-seasons, the Huskies have lost John Ross and Dante Pettis, the primary targets during Jake Browning’s record-setting 2016 season. With both Chico McClatcher and Hunter Bryant (who won’t be back for at least a few months) both trying to come back from 2017 season-ending injuries it means the Dawgs are relying upon Aaron Fuller, Ty Jones, Andre Baccellia, and Quinten Pounds. That foursome had combined for less than 1,000 career receiving yards and six touchdowns entering 2018.

Washington was able to move the ball downfield time and time again on Saturday though by attacking the Auburn corners deep. That is likely the weakest part of Auburn’s defense, but these weren’t cases like John Ross running so far past opposing corners that they weren’t in the frame. All four of those receivers made contested catches and showed they had Jake’s trust to make a play on the ball even when not 100% open.

The Huskies attempted seven passes of 20+ yards past the line of scrimmage. Browning completed five of them for 158 yards with the other two falling just out of the reach of Aaron Fuller. That’s over 22 yards per attempt. If Washington can keep that number above even 15 YPA while getting the running game on track, they’re going to have a very explosive offense. For comparison, against Penn State with largely the same receiver group, Browning also attempted seven deep passes and went just 1/7 for 28 yards with the touchdown over the middle to Aaron Fuller.

The one downside of the Huskies making so many contested catches is that, with the ball hitting them in stride, none had sufficient separation to end up in the end zone. Husky receivers only averaged 3.6 yards after catch against Auburn. That number is going to have to go up in the future to make the offense more consistent.

2. The defense felt the loss of Vita Vea

The traditional Husky defense plays only two down linemen. Last season, with Vita Vea and Greg Gaines anchoring the middle and occupying double teams, it worked out quite well for them. With only Gaines remaining, it seems clear from the formations that the coaches don’t quite have the same faith in the rest of the D-linemen this season. There were 80 non-penalty snaps by Auburn’s offense on Saturday. Washington played three linemen on 36 of them, or 45% of the time. (To be clear, I considered Gaines, Johnson, Onwuzurike, and Shane Bowman to be defensive linemen and so considered it a three-lineman lineup if any three of those players were in at the same time, even if one technically rushed standing up on the outside.)

That percentage is substantially larger than last year and was less successful against Auburn than their traditional approach. On those 36 plays Auburn averaged 6.22 yards per play versus 4.61 yards per play in all other scenarios. You’d expect that they would be better defending against the run with the bigger front, but that wasn’t the case. Auburn ran the ball for 4 yards per carry against three UW linemen and 3.47 yards per carry with two or fewer.

Auburn was particularly able to exploit the lack of a second OLB on their screen plays. Stidham threw six passes against three-down-lineman alignments that didn’t cross the line of scrimmage and five of them resulted in first downs for an average of 10.7 yards per play. They threw ten of them against lineups with both OLBs on the field and only got two first downs for 4.1 yards per play.

3. We may want to cool it on the ‘greatest secondary in UW history’ talk

Auburn’s offense puts a lot of stress on a defense by stretching the field laterally and forcing a secondary to make tackles in space. UW definitely struggled with it at times. Auburn averaged 7.88 YPA on plays where Jarrett Stidham got rid of the ball. It’s not a number that’s going to lead the conference (actually, it might lead the SEC with those offenses) but it is better than we’re used to seeing.

Jimmy Lake secondaries have traditionally been great at tackling in space and they mostly were against Auburn. The bigger problem was the inability of the corners to fight through Auburn receivers’ blocks and get in position to tackle. I’m sure there were a few holds that went uncalled, but for the most part you didn’t see enough of a UW corner shedding a block and challenging near the line of scrimmage. Auburn had eight different times when they caught a pass behind the line of scrimmage and gained at least five yards before encountering a UW defender or running out of bounds. Give the Huskies credit for learning from their mistakes, though. Only one of those eight plays happened in the second half, which helped explain why the Huskies were able to get back in the game.

Unfortunately, Auburn also had success when they did move the ball deeper. Stidham was 7/10 for 127 yards on throws going 10+ yards downfield. Washington ran a lot of zone in the secondary but there were still a couple of times when the UW corners were beaten in man coverage on the outside. The next time the Huskies will get a challenge in the passing game like this on the road will likely be against Justin Herbert and Oregon, so they have a little bit of time now to round into form before that challenge.

Three More Things (because there are too many things in a game like this)

  • I mentioned that the Huskies played with three linemen on defense more often, but their base defense in clear passing situations (3rd and 9+) was to have Gaines as the only man in the middle, play the ILBs in the A gaps to start, and bring in Brandon McKinney as a third safety. Ariel Ngata and Benning Potoa’e were the OLBs on each of these occasions, which suggests the coaches feel that is the best pass rushing duo they have on the outside.
  • The Washington run game struggled, which wasn’t necessarily a surprise given how good Auburn’s DTs were. Still, the Huskies probably didn’t help themselves by getting a little predictable. The Dawgs ran the ball on 63% of first down plays. They also ran the ball 71% of the time they had 2+ TEs in on 1st down. It would be nice to see them throw the ball a little more frequently in those situations to keep defenses on their toes. It always feels good if you can run the ball when the opponent knows you’re going to run, but doing the opposite of what the defense thinks you’re going to do is usually more effective. See Auburn’s go-ahead touchdown, which came on 3rd and 7 (and man, would their play caller have gotten chewed out if he had gotten stuffed at the line on that play).
  • The story of this game was the lack of success in the red zone for Washington. Just how bad was it? Washington ran 18 plays that started at or inside Auburn’s 20-yard line (including an offsides on the defense). The Huskies gained...five yards on those plays. Whoops. A sterling average of 0.28 yards per play. The total was 7.02 yards per play on all other snaps. You expect your red zone number to be lower because your possible yardage is less but there can’t be that large a discrepancy unless you’re hitting a bunch of 80-yard touchdowns.