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Coach’s Corner: Uh... Apple Cup Week?

Adjustments, Dominance, & the Unknown

Arizona v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Taking my cue from Gabey, let’s skip intros this week

Last Week: UW 44 - Arizona 27

My top notes from this past weekend’s game:

  • Donovan opened up the offense & it paid dividends
  • Coach K shuffled the game plan, figured out what works, and dominated
  • Coach Lake mixed it up, pressed for the big lead, and cashed in the points to get the youngsters live reps in the 4th
NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Air Donovan?

I was incredibly excited to see the one-week evolution of Donovan’s offense and Dylan Morris’ role within it. Expectations based on our showing against Oregon State were that Donovan might be a stubborn “Pro-Style” retread that was fixed in his ways, inflexible, and unimaginative. Fortunately, we are starting to see why there’s been growing excitement within the program to see what Donovan can do with this team.

Simply looking at the box score won’t paint the full picture of how drastic of a departure our Arizona game plan was from last week’s. Morris had exactly one more attempt and one more completion, than last week (14/24 vs. 15/25), and he only gained 89 more yards this week to achieve a rather pedestrian 230 passing yards on the night. What stood out to me was the drastic increase in deep routes that we took. By my quick count we took 6 deep shots (20+ yards downfield, and someone can fact check me on that), which would’ve been twice as many as last week, and by the eye test, Morris showed a little more aggression within the called concepts in taking tougher throws a little further downfield.

This vertical passing game is a huge component of what I was looking for from Donovan between week 1 & 2 as it is the natural counter to teams selling out against the run. There were other counters and concepts that I’ll run through in Film Study this week, but our expanded vertical play action attack and more efficient empty passing series will be critical to our continued growth on offense.

This is all to say that Donovan & the staff are showing growing confidence in Morris’ ability to play smart AND play aggressive. Our offense has already shown that we can lean on an efficient and dynamic run game, but our upper ceiling will be tied to the success that Morris & the WRs can find getting chunk plays. I don’t think its a stretch to think that we might’ve had ~350 yards passing and 3 passing TDs if we didn’t have a couple drops on both deep and underneath throws. Puka Nacua is looking to get back into the groove, Terrell Bynum is finding his rhythm as an all-purpose play maker, Jalen McMillan is running wild behind secondaries, and Cade Otton just had his best receiving game as a Husky. Morris is doing a good job placing the ball at all levels (still some room for improvement & consistency on the deep shots), but once we get the chemistry dialed in, everything is there for an explosive passing attack. Don’t be surprised if we start to drop 40+ on most teams in the conference.

Arizona v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Throwback to The Death Row Dawgs

Much like on offense, adjustments and week-to-week growth were the major drivers of our exceptionally dominant showing on defense this past weekend. Interestingly enough, I think this was more about our staff getting back to our roots rather than making any sort of wholesale changes to get back on track. From a game plan stand point, we really didn’t change that much from our usual MO.

Throughout most of the game we played in our usual single-high safety looks, somewhat of a change relative to our liberal use of two-high looks versus OSU. We played a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1, and we blitzed around 14 of the time or less, which was as expected. The biggest changes were in how much more stout our rushing defense was. This past week we gave up only 72 yards on the ground, which was a full 95 yards fewer than the week prior.

There’s a lot that went into our much improved rushing defense. First was that Gary Brightwell is nowhere near the back that Jermar Jefferson is, so it was to be expected that we would be a little better against a league-average back. Second was the design of Arizona’s rushing attack relative to OSU’s. The Beavers have a rushing attack that matched up rather well against our defensive structure, and its very similar in design to our own offense. Their TEs, FBs, and even WRs are strong blockers, so playing in condensed formations and in tight splits helps to leverage their blocking strengths in the box. This makes it easier to get favorable blocking assignments (ex. toss cracks where a WR can get the block on a DE to spring the OT to block a DB). Arizona’s wide open sets and much weaker auxiliary blocking matches up more favorably to our nickel personnel in the run game. Against 5 or 6-man blocking fronts, our own defensive front held a decent advantage both in numbers and in talent.

Finally, but probably most significantly, it looked like our players were simply playing faster this week. This has probably has nothing to do with game plan or scheme, but it may have something to do with game preparation and practice this past week. Guys like Eddie Ulofoshio and Jackson Sirmon were flowing hard to the ball, and it seemed like there was a lot less hesitation post-snap. Again, I’ll run through some of this in this week’s Film Study, but playing with more confidence in their preparation, in the play calls, and in their technique leads to the type of incremental improvements that will yield great results over the season.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Development Over Style Points

What I loved the most was seeing the continued impression that Lake is putting onto this program. When we all learned of the Petersen to Lake transition we were sold on the idea of continuity of program fundamentals, but we were also sold on the idea that Lake would reinvigorate the program with energy and an aggressive mindset to go out and reach greater heights. That’s why I was so disappointed by some of the conservative calls that we saw against OSU.

Like the offense and defense, Lake went back to the drawing board and reassessed how he wants to lead the team on gamedays at a HC level, and it showed on the field. We were much more aggressive on early downs while on offense, and I’d argue this was because Donovan knew that Lake was giving the greenlight to go for it on 4th downs, where we were a solid 2 for 2. We also gambled more on special teams with a fake punt early in the game well inside our own territory, as well as a 2-pt conversion attempt that I thought we probably could’ve challenged. Both of these calls came in positions where the opponent isn’t expecting us to call such an aggressive play, and these are the spots where we should go for them and steal back possessions or points. I still have reservations about kicking FGs inside an opponents’ 10 yard line in short yardage situations (we kicked on 4th & Goal from the AZ 2), but taking points hasn’t bitten us, so I’ll be happy with the wins.

Where I take the biggest exception to the fan narrative with this game is that we didn’t win with enough style points. As you can tell by now, I’m all for playing aggressively, playing to win, and winning big, but what for? I would’ve loved to have won 45-0, but at a certain point style points wouldn’t have substantively changed the outcome of this season. At most we’re going to play 6 games this year, and at this rate probably fewer, and we’re playing from so far behind that the CFP isn’t a realistic goal this year. I’ve always said that our expectation is to play for what we can control, which is a guaranteed berth in the Rose Bowl if we win the conference, and that is still within our control. There are bigger things to consider than just the polls and style points

Lake made the right decision at a program level to jump out ahead early and play the back ups once we had secured a win. For all the grumbling and concern about our inexperienced QBs this past off season, we are still hearing the grumbling when we are trying to get the young guys reps. Playing the back ups is exactly how you give them experience before they need to start. With the NCAA giving the eligibility mulligan for this year, there is no reason not to play all the young guys you can. We still won the game, and we’ll likely be a stronger program down the line if we can develop experienced back ups. Lake made the right move.

Next Week: Utah? BYU? Idle???

NCAA Football: North Alabama at BYU USA TODAY NETWORK

Yeah, I don’t know what to look ahead to next week. The Apple Cup has already been cancelled, and it sounds like BYU doesn’t want to play us:

Of all the possibilities for a non-WSU match up this coming week, BYU is the most intriguing to me. I legitimately think that we would dominate BYU in a similar fashion as last year’s 45-19 blowout in Provo, and the prospect of getting two top-10 match ups in our abbreviated schedule is thoroughly exciting. BYU hasn’t won any marquee games that makes me think that they are drastically better than they were last year.

Comparing their 2019 and 2020 schedules, BYU has beaten who they should’ve beaten (mostly G5 teams) and largely struggled against legitimate opponents (no P5 wins this year and only wins over maligned Tennessee and USC teams last year). They are skating by on an unblemished record, a long season (9 games played), and huge margins of victory over weak opponents. I get that there are lots of administrative and logistical issues related to the possible non-conference match up (thanks Larry), and I get that BYU would rather schedule an P5 opponent it could beat if it had to (Michigan? Penn State?.... I kid, I kid), but its a bad look to be dodging opponents with all the confidence they’ve been having in the media.

More likely we’ll play Utah or some other Pac-12 opponent that also faces a cancellation this week, so as long as we have some football to watch, I’ll be a happy camper. I’d bet big money on us over pretty much every team in the conference save for maybe Oregon (I think it’ll be a close and competitive game in 2 weeks), so to steal BYU’s line:

Any Team. Any Time. Any Place.

Go Dawgs