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Coach’s Corner: Arizona Week

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Play Calling, Decision Making, and Containing the Wildcats

Washington v Arizona Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Last Week: UW 27 – OSU 21

Lots to unpack from this past weekend’s season opening win against the Oregon State Beavers. My three main takeaways were:

• Morris stepped up and silenced a few concerns

• Donovan’s game plan didn’t have a good Plan B

• We didn’t play to win

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Oregon State at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Morris Steps Up

Husky fans, we finally have a starting QB. It only took 329 days to figure out who Jacob Eason’s successor would be, and even then, we don’t know if Kevin Thomson would’ve started had he not been injured, but that doesn’t matter right now. Dylan Morris is our QB1, and if anything, he was a pleasant surprise. I had never been particularly down on his raw talent, and I’ve previously commented on his ability to play with poise, throw with accuracy, and execute within the offense. All of those traits showed in his first start, especially as a game manager. Outside of a bad delay of game penalty later in the game, Morris did a good job of running the huddle, managing the cadence, and seemingly taking command of the offense at the line of scrimmage. I don’t know the extent of his audible authority, but it certainly looked like he was communicating effectively with his teammates and being an effective game manager.

From a game play perspective, it should be noted that the staff asked very little of Morris against OSU, but he did what was asked of him, and he kept the offense on schedule. Morris’s 14/24, 141-yard stat line could, and should, be considered rather anemic by most standards. However, I was impressed by his quick and decisive throws, an effective use of check down options, and accuracy on tight underneath passes. He had a good internal clock when sensing pressure, and on the limited number of deep shots that he threw, I saw flashes of effective touch and ball placement.

Additionally, Morris doesn’t seem to get as rattled by pressure as Browning or Eason did in recent years, and he’s athletic enough to be at least a net-neutral rushing threat with mobility to execute every concept that Browning ran (FWIW Browning was asked to run pretty much every run concept except the triple option).

There’s a lot of work to be done to get Morris and the WRs on the same page from a chemistry standpoint, but its easy to see how Morris could be an effective QB in this offense.

Game Plan & In-Game Adjustments

From a game plan perspective, the game unfolded almost exactly how I expected it would. We came out in heavy personnel, ran a run heavy offense (~1:2 Pass: Run Ratio), and we kept the passing attack very conservative in order to punish a Beaver defense that we knew we could bully. This was largely effective in the first quarter when we were averaging over 8 YPC, but OSU sold out on the run game with a minimum of 5 players on the LOS and up to 9 guys in the box. After OSU made that adjustment, we averaged ~4 YPC and generally looked a lot more lethargic.

What baffled me was how few concepts we tried to utilize in the run game in response to the Beavers’ adjustments. We continued to utilize a lot of under center interior run concepts (primarily inside zone, A-Gap power, and Power), and while we used some “window dressing” in the form of motion and a handful of formations, we didn’t really change much. We sprinkled in a couple of counter plays (which didn’t gain much traction) and a couple of pitches (which were much more successful), but we didn’t punish OSU for selling out to stop our inside run game like I was expecting.

Given how much we focused on the run game, and how effective it was early in the game, it was disappointing how poor of a job we did capitalizing on play action opportunities and other counter concepts off of the predictable OSU adjustment. By my count, we only utilized play action on 3 plays in the entire game, and the remainder of Morris’ passes were standard drop back passes. Play action passes were probably the most logical means of punishing a very one-dimensional defense in the second half, but in the end, we still were able to play efficiently enough where the offense outscored OSU’s offense 21-14. My guess is that we were trying to get away with the most vanilla set of plays possible. Additional play design concepts, such as screens, play action, motion, and RPOs, could go a long way in establishing a more diverse offense that will be able to maintain its efficiency through opponent’s adjustments.

Oregon State v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Smart Decisions vs. Aggressive Decisions?

The last takeaway from last week’s game, and perhaps the area that I’m going to be keeping the closest eye on moving forward, is Jimmy Lake & John Donovan’s approach to in-game decisions. This is less about specific play calling (i.e. blitzing or vertical passing) and more about high-level decision making such as when to call a time out, punt, kick a field goal, and go for the 4th down conversion. These types of decisions are often a head coach’s most direct impact on the game as they typically have a direct impact on scoring, the number of possessions, and setting the tone of the game. As I mentioned earlier, I got the sense that Lake was playing not to lose, rather than making the “bold” or “aggressive” decisions in these situations.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, you’d only have to look at any of the possession summaries on ESPN or Bleacher Report. Of UW’s 9 non-end of half possessions, Lake decided to punt in OSU territory twice and attempt FGs from the OSU 10 or better three times. The decision to punt those two times in OSU territory is up for debate as UW was facing a 4th & 6 and a 4th & 12, so converting is not a certainty, and a FG attempt at 50+ yards wasn’t a good idea either. However, there is certainly a case to be made that attempting three FGs inside an opponent’s 10 isn’t the smartest decision, let alone the most aggressive one. Short FGs are no sure thing (as we now know), so you really don’t have to be that efficient for an extra attempt at a 6-point TD to be a better bet than a 3-point FG, especially when we were moving the ball decently well. Additionally, taking the conservative option with the FG doesn’t signal to your offense that you trust them to make the conversion against a team you are heavily favored against.

This decision-making is something that I’m sure a lot of you out there will have an opinion on, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Next Week: Containing Arizona’s Troika

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 USC at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With so many areas for our Huskies to look to improve in, as well as what should be another decent talent advantage, we should again look to have a straightforward game plan that is predicated on execution and leveraging our strengths. For as much as I’ve talked about the Husky offense, it’s really our defense that will need to step up next week as we again face an offense that could do some damage against our vulnerable rushing defense.

As far as defensive game planning, we need to learn some lessons from the OSU game and make adjustments. We know that we have a strong secondary and pass defense, and we know that we have issues containing strong rushing attacks. We held OSU to under 100 yards passing (244 fewer than WSU the previous week), but we allowed 167 rushing yards (45 more than WSU), which is a concerning continuation of last years weak rushing defense. Typically, this would allow us to play a little more aggressive coverages and stack the box with numbers, but we have been hesitant to go that route. Often against OSU we were hesitant to commit numbers to the box, and we were outnumbered in the box with astonishing frequency considering that Jermar Jefferson is one of the best RBs in the conference. This was usually due to us playing 2-deep coverages, committing our nickel (Molden) to the slot/alley even when OSU wasn’t deploying a slot receiver, and playing our CBs 7 yards deep and outside of the box when they did not have a WR to cover on their side. If OSU picked up on this to get easy number advantages, I’m sure Arizona will use similar formation designs to their advantage as well.

We will also want to specifically consider how to balance defending the troika of RB Gary Brightwell, QB Grant Gunnell, and WR Stanley Berryhill III. The three aren’t world-beating talents, but they are the primary weapons in Arizona’s offense that will get a large percentage of the looks. Brightwell is stepping up as the lead back in the Wildcat offense, and Gunnell caused USC fits with his sneaky mobility for a 6’-6” QB. As Lake’s alluded to before, mobile QBs have caused him the most issues in the past, and while Gunnell isn’t a true dual-threat, we should be cautious when dialing up pressure.

Berryhill will likely be the least of our concerns of the three as he is highly dependent on Gunnell giving him lots of targets. Berryhill’s role is much more of a consistent and efficient chain mover than a game-changing homerun hitter, not unlike Terrell Bynum, so focusing the coverage to take him away while applying smart and gap sound pressure on Gunnell should be a winning game plan. Of course, that is all predicated on us being able to get stops in the run game. A little more focus on stopping the run should be just what we need to smother the Wildcats offense.

Bonus Note: I’m setting the Coach’s Corner prop bet of the week at O/U 2.5 sacks. I think we’re going to focus a lot more on attacking the LOS this week to disrupt the run and passing games.