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Three Things We Learned: Stanford

The pass protection discrepancy, the increase in empty formations, and a just flat out bad run defense.

Washington v Stanford Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Running Passing on Empty

Husky twitter was understandably frustrated with the number of empty formation sets that were run on offense against Stanford. Those fans will be dismayed to learn that this is a trend which has happened with increasing frequency. Washington ran just 9 total plays out of an empty set in their first three games but have averaged 9 such plays in their last 3 games with at least 8 in each contest.

On average it hasn’t been the worst look in the world. Across the entire season it has picked up 7.2 yards per play with a 50% success rate. Those numbers are fairly close to the overall passing numbers. But Washington hasn’t been able to exploit the matchups against Pac-12 competition after slicing up BYU with that look. Against USC the Dawgs threw for 3.78 yards per play and a 40% success rate throwing from empty. Last Saturday night the yards per play was better at 6.6 but the success rate dropped to 33.3%.

The big problem was the lack of execution in high leverage situations. Of the three plays which met success criteria, two came on the first drive and the third was on a 1st and 10. The unsuccessful plays included a missed 3rd and 4 in the red zone which led to a field goal attempt, a 4th and 2 in the red zone that cost the Huskies points, and a 3rd and 6 just outside the red zone.

Many fans will want to blame the lack of success on the empty set itself but the issues stem from a lack of imagination in the route concepts. In 3rd/4th and medium situations Washington has almost exclusively been running multiple slants or multiple crossing routes. If the opponent is in man to man coverage then the linebacker covering the running back is sitting in the space you want to attack. Moving the back to the perimeter clears out that space in the middle of the field.

Stanford knew exactly what Washington wanted to do in those situations. On the failed 4th down slant to Baccellia you can freeze the footage to see that Adebo has already jumped the route before Eason has even let go of the ball. On the failed 3rd down crosser to McClatcher you can see that Stanford had a zone defender covering the middle of the field who is in perfect position to cut in front of McClatcher. Washington has to find a way to get some variety out of their short to intermediate passing game especially with Richard Newton, their best short yardage back, out for what appears to be a significant chunk of time.

Under Pressure

Teams have better passing stats when the quarterback isn’t under pressure. Games are won in the trenches. This isn’t exactly rocket science. But there won’t be many games in which the difference was quite so stark.

Jacob Eason has struggled without a clean pocket this season but the offensive line has generally done a good job of keeping him upright. Here are the % of dropbacks under pressure in each game: EWU- 8.8%, Cal- 19.4%, Hawai’i- 0%, BYU- 14.3%, USC- 21.4%, Stanford- 28.2%.

Those totals for the most part are equivalent to the relative strength of the opposing front 7’s that Washington has faced but that Stanford total is ridiculous given the way they’ve performed against other teams. The Huskies averaged 7.36 yards per play with a success rate of 46.4% dropping back to pass without pressure and -1.45 yards per play and a 9.1% success rate when facing pressure. That’s how you end up with a broken passing game.

Things were much the same against Stanford except the Huskies weren’t able to generate the same caliber of pass rush. The UW defense pressured Mills/West on 18.2% of drop backs which is a little bit below their season average but not a season low. The difference is that Stanford was starting multiple true freshman on their offensive line. If there was a game when you could’ve expected them to wreak havoc it would have been this one.

When the front 7 was able to get close to the Stanford QBs they averaged -0.5 yards per play and had a success rate of 0%. On all other throws it was 10.9 yards per play and a 70.4% success rate. Washington went with 3 true DL on about 1/3rd of Stanford’s passing plays which made it a little harder to get pressure but there’s no question that this game was a big minus for them.

Tackling Dummies

I’ve made excuses in the games against USC and Cal about the defensive strategy revolving around taking away the pass and giving up the run. But after a game in which the team got torched both through the air and on the ground I think we can officially declare this just a plain old fashioned bad run defense.

Pick your metric. There are the standard yards per carry numbers that you’ve already seen in the box scores. There’s also:

Washington missed 13 total tackles against Stanford which is their highest total of the past 2 seasons after they set the unfortunate record earlier this year in the loss to Cal. The final tallies: Wellington- 3; Manu, Taimani, Letuligasenoa, Potoa’e, Sirmon, Bryant, Tafisi, Taylor, and Bowman- 1.

Stanford averaged 2.5 yards after contact on runs occurring on either 3rd or 4th down which was a season worst for the Husky defense. That included 5 runs where the ball carrier was contacted at least 2 yards before the first down marker but still managed to pick up the 1st down. 4 of the 5 happened while UW was trailing by at least 7 points during the final 16 minutes of the contest. Yuck

Against Pac-12 opponents this season the Dawgs have now given up 5.98 yards per carry. That number drops to 4.53 YPC when the Huskies have at least 7 in the box but even then opponents have a success rate of 46.9% which is much too high in situations where we’re effectively selling out to stop the run. You can expect that teams will continue to be able to run against Washington throughout the rest of the season. But there’s still hope for the passing game if they’re able to find manufacture some semblance of a pass rush and/or Elijah Molden and Myles Bryant aren’t forced to line up against 6’4 receivers on a consistent basis.