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Season in Review: Rushing Offense

In which we reflect on how darn good MMFG is.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s the last of the offensive and defensive season in reviews. It’s also likely the last time I’ll publish something where the lead photo is of MMFG.

Anyways, because we all know my feelings about intros (they suck), let’s just get straight to the part that matters:

What We Expected

After much of Washington’s fanbase reasonably expected Myles Gaskin to leave for the NFL once last season was over, his return for his senior year suddenly made 2018 look much brighter. While Salvon Ahmed’s electric athleticism in 2017 gave reason for optimism, losing Gaskin’s vision and shiftiness promised to result in a huge drop-off. Then, with the prospect of both Gaskin back and Ahmed having a year’s worth of improvement, suddenly the running game seemed like it could be unstoppable.

Meanwhile, with Myles returning, the backups Kamari Pleasant and Sean McGrew weren’t expected to do much, although many were speculating that Pleasant could be somewhat of a Lavon Coleman-type — the loss of whom to the NFL widely regarded to be a sneakily important hole to fill. Prior to the season, it wasn’t considered too wild to predict one of those two would likely transfer at some point, since both were entering their third year without having any prior meaningful snaps.

At the same time, as the foundations of the running game, the offensive line was bringing back three full-time starters (until we found out Trey Adams was gone for most of the year), one part-time starter, and only one new guy in redshirt freshman Jaxson Kirkland. While anybody paying attention knew they still had plenty that needed improvement, it didn’t feel unreasonable to think they’d be relatively good.

What We Saw

The season started the way all Myles Gaskin and Chris Petersen seasons begin: with us freaking out that the run game wasn’t instantly kicking ass.

In fact, Gaskin only had one game of 100+ yards until UCLA, when Washington played Utah and he went for 143. After the UCLA game, he had 100+ yards in all games except against the two where he was injured in Colorado (which he missed) and Oregon (where he was out for the last chunk of it) and the Utah championship rematch. Meanwhile, a visit to any online congregation of Husky fans would quickly inform you that Salvon Ahmed was getting a confusingly small amount of touches; his first touchdown was against BYU, where he got two.

After that, Ahmed’s touches were more consistent, typically hovering around eight to nine per game, although his yards per carry varied wildly.

Which brings us to the offensive line. Which was wildly inconsistent.

Rushes to the left of center were frequently many yards per carry less than to the right, while game-to-game, nobody knew what we were gonna see. Even play-to-play, it was common to see one completely blown up play where Myles would have to wriggle his way back to the line, followed by a well-executed pulled block that would result in a 15 yard gain. And if it was someone other than Gaskin caught in the former, then it all-too-often ended in a tackle for loss and an offense behind the chains that isn’t built to play from behind the chains.

On the plus side, the emergence of Kamari Pleasant and Sean McGrew as reliable — although not explosive — supporting backs, was a *ahem* pleasant surprise (no pun intended). McGrew improved significantly from last year in his ability to leverage his low center of gravity; whereas, during his few touches in 2017, he seemed to go down instantly upon contact, 2018 looked like the switch went on as far as using his 5’7” pad level to drive opponents instead of just hoping a hole would open up. At the same time, Pleasant emerged as a decent pass-catching target late in the season who was a valuable by-committee running back.

Oh, and there was the Apple Cup’s nine-minute-running-the-clock-out-to-kill-the-game glory. That was fun.

What We Learned

I wish I could just write “Myles Gaskin singlehandedly kept the offense looking half-alright with his yards after contact” and leave it at that. Unfortunately, I’m told I can’t. Or at least, I assume that’s what they’d tell me if I asked.

The offensive line had plenty of experience on their side going into the season — Jaxson Kirkland was, going into Auburn, the only new starter and Trey Adams’ backup, Jared Hilbers, had seen decent playing time the last two years — but for all that experience, they were often not cohesive or consistent enough to be reliable. There were plenty of times where Gaskin’s ability to magic his way out of certain doom was practically superhuman.

In fact, for all the love Myles Gaskin rightfully gets from the Washington fanbase, I think there’s a high chance we still don’t appreciate him enough. So many times he was met behind or at the line of scrimmage, in situations where a simply above-average-or-worse back would have gone down and put the offense in a position where they’re likely to stall. And, if you’re the opposing defense, in a frustrating amount of those situations, he willed himself to not only not go down, but to get enough yards where the team didn’t have to be stuck in obvious passing downs.

What solidifies that to me is seeing Salvon Ahmed next to Gaskin, both statistically and through the eye test. While Ahmed is arguably more electric of an athlete, he (just like everyone else in the world) has neither Myles’ patience, vision, nor slipperiness. That shows in the statistics, where I find Ahmed, Pleasant, and McGrew’s up-and-down yards per carry from game to game is a good indicator of how the line was that day, whereas Myles’ consistency means he almost always had his yards per carry against an FBS opponent anywhere between 4.1 and 6.3. For reference, McGrew, Pleasant, and Ahmed ranged from 3.0 to 7.0, 3.0 to 7.4, and -0.3 to 9.7, respectively.

In other words, Ahmed might be the better athlete who can destroy defenses if the conditions up front are right, but that “if” is always there. Myles made something out of nothing, and a lot out of something.

Otherwise, Pleasant and McGrew showed they can be productive supporting cast members in the run, with the former averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and the latter averaging 4.5.

And, in the realm of things that aren’t the running game but affect it, 2018 was a confirmation of how much a rushing offense’s ceiling is determined by the passing game; with the air threat diminishing, we more frequently saw the limitations trickle over to the ground attack as the season went on.

Lastly, we learned that nobody but Myles Gaskin should ever do the Wildcat. Ever. Oh God.

What We Should See... Next Year

I’m cautiously optimistic about the run game next year, mainly because it loses one massive advantage while gaining another — and if those two offset and it’s subsequently “just” as good as this year, that will be a huge win.

What it loses is obvious: MMFG, one of the most consistently productive running backs in college history, maybe the most beloved Husky of this generation, and a player who could singlehandedly keep the offense in it.

What it gains is less obvious, unless you’re already on my same wavelength in which case you know exactly what I’m gonna say: the threat of Jacob Eason throwing it approximately 70-thousand yards on any given play. Not only does that require the back seven of opposing defenses to be on their toes in the deep end like John Ross’ speed did in 2016, but it creates the precedent for a very effective play-action game. Which in turn makes each given defender wait that half a second longer every time Ahmed and Co. gets the ball.

As far as personnel, we’ll get to see the answer we thought we’d get this year: Is Ahmed ready to be #1? Like previously established, he’s a better athlete than Gaskin and explosive in space, but his vision and slipperiness isn’t the same. Can we reasonably add a “yet” to the end of that sentence?

Alongside him, McGrew’s low center of gravity and Pleasant’s potential to be a more physical presence means we could see three vastly different running styles than Washington fans have become accustomed to the last four years.

Oh, and if the offensive line doesn’t improve their consistency, we’re gonna learn the hard way how much better Myles was than even his biggest fans thought.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.