1. The Huskies Have Learned Not to Trust Their Offensive Line against Premier Defensive Lines
Washington started off the season playing Auburn in Atlanta against a stellar defensive line which included a likely 1st round pick in DT Derrick Brown. Jake Browning was pressured on 30.77% of pass attempts. 2 weeks later the Dawgs traveled to Utah to play the Utes which didn’t have a likely 1st round pick but which had 3 members of their defensive line who made the Pac-12 all-1st or 2nd teams. UW was pressured on 38.46% of pass attempts.
If you exclude the North Dakota game then the Huskies have nicely bookended their season with games against Utah and games against talented non-conference teams away from home. They were pressured only 18.4% of the time in the rematch against Utah despite not scoring an offensive touchdown and only 13.8% of the time against Ohio State despite not scoring an offensive touchdown until the 4th quarter. What changed?
Mostly, the Huskies decided to eschew as many opportunities downfield in favor of quick throws to the perimeter and a dink and dunk offense. In the Pac-12 title game 23 of the 31 passes that Browning threw which weren’t throwaways traveled 5 of fewer yards in the air. He was pressured on 3 of those 8 attempts which went further than 5 yards in the air (37.5%). Against Ohio State the Huskies took it to the extreme. They threw 15 passes that didn’t cross the line of scrimmage which was a season high. Of course they also had 51 pass attempts that made it near the intended target which was also a season high. Against Auburn they threw only 3 passes behind the line of scimmage and only one to a WR.
If you go off a percentage basis the 29.4% of passes behind the line of scrimmage was 4th on the season. The 3 ahead of it? Washington State, Oregon State, and the 2nd Utah game. Those are the final 4 games of the season and the final 4 games after the bye week. The timing would seem to indicate that the coaching staff made a decision during the bye that the offense would be better served to focus on short passes rather than throwing the ball in the intermediate range. But then again the Wazzu game was played in heavy snow for much of the game and the Utah/Ohio State games could legitimately be the result of gameplanning for having no time in the pocket.
If you look at Browning’s numbers in the first 10 games versus the last 4 his completion percentage is 6.5% higher which you would expect given all the short throws but his yards per attempt is 0.6 yards lower. Would UW have been better served taking an extra sack or 2 and/or risk an extra turnover to take more shots downfield? Given that UW ended up losing anyways it probably would’ve been worth the risk but that question was impossible to answer in the moment. If Andre Baccellia avoids a couple of shoestring tackles and breaks those short passes for 40+ yard gains then we’d feel differently about it. But the fact that those balls were going to Baccellia instead of Chico McClatcher or John Ross might be an indication that it wasn’t the best strategy for our personnel.
2. Pick Up The Tempo
The short passes were one big part of the offensive strategy but the Huskies also went with more hurry up than we’ve seen them use all season. One of Washington’s advantages is that they are so darn multiple in their formations. They’ll go 3 wide with Hunter Bryant as the TE and Salvon Ahmed at RB one play and then line up the next time with 3 TEs in their heavy package and pound it with Gaskin. It’s tough to prepare for that. But UW largely eschewed that type of variety in order to keep Ohio State from substituting and wear out their defense.
Washington took 95 snaps in the Rose Bowl (includes pre-snap offensive penalties). The next most plays they ran in any game this season was 81 and median was 71. That means the Huskies ran essentially 40% more plays than they did in an average game. However, including penalty yardage they averaged just 4.67 yards per play which was their 10th highest total on the season (ahead of only Stanford, the P12 title game, and California).
It’s not unreasonable to argue that tiring out Ohio State’s defense is what allowed Washington to have success in the 4th quarter. The Huskies ran 57 plays after halftime so the defense’s constant presence on the field had to have made them physically tired even if mentally they were already starting to check out with the 25 point cushion which also may have been a factor. Given the topic of this section I also have to mention when the Huskies got screwed by the refs when Ohio State was allowed to substitute on a clear 14 men on the field situation when the exact same thing happened to UW earlier in the game. That situation is one of the advantages of going up tempo and the Huskies likely take a shot with that free play and who knows if maybe Ty Jones comes down with a contested catch in the end zone which completely changes the complexion of the game.
I originally thought that the up-tempo strategy might’ve been what was keeping Hunter Bryant from getting the ball in the 1st half. Maybe we were sticking with packages that he wasn’t in for entire drives and therefore he couldn’t get the ball? That wasn’t really true though as he played nearly the same percentage of total snaps in each half. He was out there for 8 consecutive snaps on UW’s 5th drive (which ended with a punt from OSU’s 37) and never saw a target. I would need the All-22 tape to determine whether Bryant just wasn’t open or Browning just wasn’t throwing it to him but he was on the field despite not getting his name called.
3. Taylor Rapp Was Really Freaking Important to This Team
Ohio State attempted 4 passes that were in the middle of the field 10+ yards past the line of scrimmage. Dwayne Haskins went 3 of 4 for 55 yards and 2 TDs and the only incompletion was a drop when the guy was wide open for what would’ve been a 30+ yard gain and a possible TD. Now Taylor Rapp wouldn’t have single handedly changed the outcome on every single one of those plays but Brandon McKinney was the closest defender on the pass that made it 28-3 on 3rd down. If Rapp were in and made that play it becomes 24-3 and maybe the Huskies tie the game on their final touchdown rather than needing an onside kick?
You can play the hypothetical game all you want and never be disproved, hence the fun. But watching the defensive performance in the 1st half you couldn’t help but feel that Rapp would’ve made at least one huge play that the rest of the team seemed incapable of making. Washington particularly struggled getting to Haskins and I wouldn’t have been shocked to see Rapp get home on a safety blitz as he’s done all year.
Having McKinney in for Rapp gave a glimpse of the future on what was otherwise a day dominated by players leaving the team. 53.3% of the defensive snaps were played by guys who won’t be on the team next year (assuming that Byron Murphy goes pro as expected). And that would’ve been 62.4% if Rapp had been healthy and played every snap as he usually does. Here are your defensive snap counts from the Rose Bowl for assumed returners: McKinney- 75, Bryant- 74, Wellington- 63, Onwuzurike- 38, Potoa’e- 33, Ryan Bowman- 32, Tryon- 32, Molden- 11, Beavers- 10, Taylor- 6, ZTF- 5, Clark- 3, Bronson- 2.
Zion Tupuola-Fetui was the only true freshman to see the field today on the defensive side of the ball (WR Trey Lowe saw 2 snaps as the only one on offense). D.J Beavers got hurt and if it’s a serious injury as it looked then he may not be ready for the opener next year. But if he’s healthy then the starting defensive lineup will probably include 9 of the first 10 guys listed (with 2 of Potoa’e/R. Bowman/Tryon) next year plus a freshman DT (Letuligasenoa, Tuitele, or Bandes?) and another safety (Gilchrist, Irvin, or Gordon?). Every time there’s an exodus of defensive talent under Chris Petersen we’ve seen the unit improve yet again and it can’t be denied the average star rating next season will be at an all-time high. But it’s tough to imagine that Washington can just replace this group of seniors and keep improving without a small setback. Thank you again to the entire defense and we’ll be cheering you on in your future endeavors!