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Coach’s Corner: Stanford Week (?)

Moxie, ZTF, and Our Defense’s Kryptonite?

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Last Week: UW 24- Utah 21

As always, there’s lots to unpack from this past weekend’s thrilling come-from-behind win against the Utah Utes. In the moment, as well as after rewatching the game, these are my main takeaways/questions:

  • Zion Tupuola-Fetui might be the best pass rusher we’ve had in a decade plus
  • How will our defensive staff continue to shuffle our fronts to shore up one of the leakiest rushing defenses in the Pete Kwiatkowski era?
  • Where will John Donovan look to next in the week-to-week evolution of his offense after our rushing attack ground to a halt?
Utah v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

ZTF & Our Resurgent Pass Rush

It’s pretty clear by now that ZTF is the clear breakout player on the team this season. As has already been noted several times by now, he’s made the remarkable ascent from 4th or 5th best OLB to being tied for 11th in the country for sacks with 7.0 through 3 games. For as stout as our defense has been since he arrived, ZTF might be the single most dominant pass rushing force we’ve had since Coach K has arrived on Montlake, and possibly even before then.

To give some context for his dominance, ZTF’s 3 game sack total would’ve made him the team’s FULL SEASON sack leader in 4 of the last 7 years. He also only needs one more sack to tie Joe Tryon (2019) and Travis Feeney (2015) for the second-most sacks in a single season under Coach K (8.0 sacks). The only more dominant pass rusher in the last 10 years has been Hau’oli Kikaha, whose 19.0 sacks in 2014 lead the country, but that was produced over a 14 game season. To compare to our pandemic shortened season, this comes out to ~1.4 sacks/game, and ZTF is currently averaging ~2.3 sacks/game. Obviously this is a tiny sample size, but we are already seeing the impact its had on our passing defense.

Through 3 games, our pass defense has allowed 162 yards/game, which is 20 yards/game better than our 2016 defense, which was the best in the Coach K era. A ~10% reduction from such a low previous best is pretty remarkable, and its even more so when you consider that ~220 yards were given up by our back ups in the Arizona game. Take those out (yes, I know this is cherry picking), and our starting defense is only giving up ~89 passing yards per game. Considering that our DBs have been consistently excellent through out, I’d attribute a lot of our improvement on our pass rush. ZTF is a key cog in our pass rushing improvement, but guys like Edefuan Ulofoshio, Bowman, and Smalls all getting in helps a bunch as well. Our 1-4-6 rush package has been absolutely devastating this year. With how bad our rush defense has been this year (more on that in a minute), this elite pass defense has been critical to at least 2 of our 3 wins this year.

Utah v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Leaky Rush Defense, Round 2

Two weeks after Jermar Jefferson and the Oregon State Beavers gashed us in our season opener, Utah came into Montlake and dropped 215 rushing yards on our head. Of course looking back now that we’re three weeks into the season, Jefferson looks like the best RB in the conference, and OSU is looking surprisingly strong after upsetting the Ducks this past week, so maybe our rushing defense isn’t as bad as it looks. Regardless, Utah is a good barometer of how good our team is, especially against good rushing attacks, and we didn’t fare so well.

Initially, our defense held up pretty well against the Utes’ first salvo with Jake Bentley’s scrambling being what really got us thrown off balance. He didn’t gash us like more athletic QBs might have, but Bentley’s slick moves to evade pressure and convert third downs were maddening early. That scrambling in passing situations caught us off guard as this was where our defense has caught a break thus far this season. We have been strong when we could string together consecutive snaps of good rushing defense to force 3rd & long, but those are pretty hard to come by. We eventually locked down on the scrambling, but Jayden De Laura and Tyler Shough are more athletic than the QBs we’ve faced to-date and could pose some challenges down the line (assuming we get to make up the Apple Cup).

Outside of that initial burst of QB rushing, Utah honed in on the soft spots in our defense as the first progressed. Similar to the observations that I made breaking down our OSU tape, we found ourselves playing pretty soft fronts against relatively heavy personnel (12 personnel primarily). We played more 8-man boxes, but Utah must’ve watched the tape and stayed in formations that didn’t draw Elijah Molden into the box (no-slot formations). This negated a defensive numbers advantage, and we were very hesitant to adjust our personnel to match the heavier Utah personnel.

Speaking of personnel, an interesting twist that I saw was that we rolled with a 3-3-5 under front for a good portion of the first half. This would be 3 down DL (Bronson, Taimani, & Tuitele/Bandes), 1 OLB on the edge (ZTF), and our 2 ILBs (Sirmon & Ulofoshio), and between the 3 DL and ZTF, we would have a 4-man front. In many ways this was simply sliding Bronson out to the edge to account for Ryan Bowman being out. However, Bronson’s inexperience on the edge showed, and it threw off our run fits where the added heft along the line didn’t actually help our run defense. This isn’t all on Bronson though. Our DL was consistently blown off the ball by Utah’s OL and a rushing attack that was focused on getting double teams across the line.

To a certain extent, we are still getting the job done at the end of the day, but we need to keep searching for a consistent answer for our run defense. Tuli Letuligasenoa’s return should help our run defense, but one guy shouldn’t make or break our defense. I’ll go into this in more depth in this week’s Film Study.

Utah v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Week 3 of the Donovan Offensive Rollercoaster

Well it’s 3 weeks in, and our offense has been all over the place. Week 1 saw us play conservative breaking in new starters, and our ground-n-pound game plan mustered us just enough to win. Week 2 saw us pour it on an overmatched opponent with a slightly more diverse passing attack, but it was largely the same run-oriented attack that we saw the week before. Week 3 finally saw us play a team that we couldn’t just bully into submission in the trenches, and like the OSU game, we didn’t have a ton of great answers.

As was discussed across UW-twitter after the game, play calling could be a big factor in our final offensive production, but it isn’t everything. In the moment, it felt as though our offense was very predictable through out the sluggish first half, and I’ve heard lots of moaning about our preference to run early. Going back to the game, this wasn’t really the case. Over the whole game, UW ran on only 11 of 27 1st downs, 9 of 19 2nd downs, and a full game run:pass ratio of 26:38 (unusually pass-heavy for us). This got skewed by the second half when we made some adjustments to our play calling focus, but even the first half calling wasn’t ridiculously one-sided. It just seemed that way. In the first half, we ran on 5 of 11 1st downs, but it was our abysmal 3/6 for 17 yards passing that really set us back. These poor returns on early down passing got us behind the sticks and made everything else seem that much worse.

It should also be mentioned that we don’t know what the dynamic is on the field as far as Dylan Morris’ ability to change plays and make adjustments. Jake Browning did this a lot, and it was one of the reasons why it was so hard to pin down what exactly our OC was calling. Then there is the execution aspect of this as we again had some drops and miscues on plays that otherwise got our guys open. I can’t put that much blame on John Donovan for those types of plays.

These factors don’t give Donovan a free pass for his questionable preference for repeatedly calling interior run plays against a very stout front, and it doesn’t get him off the hook for going into the game with a plan that seemingly played into what Utah wanted to do. For as much as we want to pat the team on the back for their moxie in pulling off the comeback, we really shouldn’t need such a furious second half effort. To get stonewalled for two quarters isn’t a good look when we have weapons in the passing game.

Moving forward I expect Donovan to continue to integrate Cade Otton into the passing game after back-to-back monster games. I also hope that our WRs get a grip on their drops (yes, pun intended). I’m all for keeping the run-oriented game plans, but mixing in some perimeter runs outside of Terrell Bynum sweeps would be a nice change of pace.

Washington v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Next Week: Stanford... or WSU(?)

I guess at this point in the season I should know better than to assume we’re actually playing whoever is next on our “schedule”... I think we all just have to live with the Pac-12’s “pick-up game” scheduling. Word on the street is that a cancellation of games involving California-based teams is possible, but a rescheduling of the Apple Cup could be in play if that were to happen. If we don’t end up playing Stanford, then you can disregard the title, cover photo, and everything else after this, but until then, this is what I’m going with.

Stanford on The Farm has been our kryptonite over the years, and it’s looking like we dodged a bullet with the game scheduled to be played at Husky Stadium. Really, it isn’t the location that trips us up though. From what I’ve pieced together over the years, Stanford just has an identity that matches up well to ours. On the offensive side, Stanford tends to play a style of offense that both Oregon State and Utah have used to expose a weakness in our run defense. In recent years, including this year, we don’t have as dominant of a DT combo to clog up the middle, but we also don’t have the same dominant ILB play to compensate for this. This is less of an issue against spread teams that our base 2-4-5 matches up well against, but it becomes a bigger problem when teams trot out heavier 12 or 21 personnel to run the ball and we don’t adjust. This allows them to get double teams on at least 2 of our front 4. OSU has done it, Utah has done it, and Stanford historically has been the best in the conference at doing it.

We might be lucky this year in that Stanford isn’t as deep at TE as they typically are, and their best offensive weapons include 3 WRs. A more pass-oriented game plan from them to utilize their weapons would play in our favor, but match up threats like Simi Fehoko are still around (Fehoko burned us for 3 catches, 91 yards, and 1 TD last year exclusively on slot fades). Davis Mills is a solid QB, and he’s shown some growth in his game this year, so they could still be a threat through the air.

On the defensive side, Stanford also matches up pretty well with us. Their defensive front is as big as its been in years with 2 300 LB DEs and a 320+ lb NT. Like Utah, they should be pretty stout, and they like to mix in a diverse pressure package. Their secondary is pretty young, and their best DB (Paulson Adebo) opted out of this season for draft prep. My guess is that Stanford will follow the Utah game plan and dare us to throw, betting that Morris and the WRs haven’t figured out their chemistry enough to march down the field. This might give Donovan and the offense a chance to redeem themselves after the slow start last week.

That’s all I got for now folks. As always,

Go Dawgs!

*Bonus Note: Coach’s Corner prop betting line this week is 1.5 sacks for ZTF