Another week, another clunker.
Like every other Husky fan out there, I’m getting tired of having to rehash the frustratingly persistent challenges to make substantial progress towards any of our stated goals. At this point, I don’t have any pie in the sky dreams of a mid-season change that’d spark a resurgence to our former levels of success. I simply want to see progress towards competence and bowl-eligibility. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ve seen genuine “competence” yet, and its getting increasingly likely that bowl-eligibility will be out of our reach, but there was some scant bit of progress for those courageous enough to still have faith in this team to hang their hat on.
For the sake of my own sanity as a fan, I’m going to hold out hope that this team will continue to take steps forward until real change can be made in the offseason (at least the potential for real change). There’s nothing to be gained by mailing in the rest of the season, and there are a few things that I saw this weekend that could be keys to competitive games against the marquee match ups we have coming up to close the season.
One Step Forward, Ten More to Go
Despite another disappointing loss, and another poor box score showing on offense and defense, there were signs of marked progress in select areas that should indicate that bye week wasn’t totally squandered. On offense, there looked to be a concerted effort to re-orient our passing game around a perimeter passing attack that features our talented WR corps in space. Along the lines of what I, and other X & O-focused fans wanted to see, Donovan and the staff moved away from their heavy emphasis on slants and crossing routes in favor and incorporated more perimeter screens, quick hitches and outs, and RPO concepts that got the ball into our playmakers’ hands. This was a game plan that worked to great effect against Arkansas State, but we hadn’t seen a commitment to this quick perimeter passing attack since. Morris is more than capable of zipping passes to the perimeter on-time and on-target, and these types of passes help get him in rhythm and get more players involved. Not only that, but it helps to reduce the amount of processing that Morris was responsible for while creating horizontal stress for the defense that hadn’t been present with our inside run and middle of the field passing game plans.
When we did take our shots down field, we have become smarter in picking our spots. Odunze’s touchdown at the end of the 2nd quarter was a perfect example. Instead of telegraphing a deep shot by going under center for the hard play action, or just dropping back out of shotgun, Morris ran play action out of shotgun in 2nd & 2 where there was no clear run or pass tendencies. We’ve also shifted gears in our vertical passing game to shore up our protection with extra blockers and use tactical tricks to help our superior WR talent to win 1v1s rather than extra receivers to scheme guys open. On Odunze’s TD, we went with a 7-man protection against a single-high shell that left 1v1 opportunities to our perimeter WRs. We isolated Odunze in a 3x1 formation, but we kept him on the wide side of the field and with a tighter alignment to give him ample space to get open on his fade. The more space to work with towards the sideline, the bigger the window for Morris to throw away from the safety before Odunze is squeezed into the sideline. Its a small detail, but its huge when you have a WR that just needs space to get open.
In the rushing attack, we got back to our roots with more 12 personnel sets and added diversity in our blocking concepts. I believe that our heavy usage of 11 personnel prior to this game had a lot to do with the staff’s lack of confidence in our TEs after Otton, but Otton’s absence allowed Culp to break through as a viable TE2 option that can unlock our 12 personnel packages now that Otton is back in the line up. The resurgent utilization of 12 personnel sets, as well as our diversified blocking schemes in the second half, are a return to our recruiting foundation. I’ve noted on a number of occasions that there was a disconnect between Donovan’s preference for inside zone runs out of spread sets and the personnel we’ve stocked this roster with. When we put as many resources as we have into finding versatile TEs and athletic OL that can pull, why wouldn’t you maximize that advantage? Running counter plays, one-back power, toss plays, and slip screens while paired with 2 TEs helps us maximize our best skill sets, but it also allows us to more easily outflank defensive fronts and bully nickel personnel in the same sorts of ways that our own defense gets bullied.
On the topic of not playing your best players or to your strengths, I do have a bone to pick with our usage of our Jumbo-I package and Javon Forward’s reps in critical short yardage situations. This isn’t a knock on Forward, and I don’t know what Jack Westover’s availability situation is, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me for us to play our former walk-on backup FB in those situations. Like isn’t the thinking that you want your best players on the field at all times? If you want to run the ball, is your backup FB a better option than a 6th or 7th OL? Even leaving one of our talented WRs out there in a run situation might be more beneficial if he can draw one more defender out of the box (or act as a motion man like on our last TD).
To be sure, the number of snaps that our backup FB got was not the key factor in our offense’ performance. We still have a long way to go before they can even resemble a top 25 offense, but the pieces are there and the play design and calling is starting to improve where it isn’t our only hindrance. I don’t want to dive down the rabbit hole on the whole QB situation, but we need to coax more consistency out of that position if we want to take the next step. We need to capitalize on our opportunities, and we need to avoid the back breaking mistakes that kill drives. The two picks ended promising drives that could have changed the whole dynamic of the game. If the first drive ended in a field goal instead of an interception, then we might’ve been driving for the win instead of a tie at the end of the game when we again threw a pick. When our defense digs deep and holds an opponent to 3/12 on 3rd down (6/19 in overall conversion), the offense needs to get out of its own way.
On the topic of the defense, the box score doesn’t do it’s performance any justice. All things considered, I was fairly impressed by the defense’ progress since its last showing against OSU. While we still gave up 420 yards overall, and 237 on the ground, this was not the same sort of porous and much maligned run defense that got bullied by Michigan and OSU. With a little help from special teams, the defense kept Zach Charbonnet (probably the best back we’ll face all year) from single-handedly taking over the game in the same way that Blake Corum/Hassan Haskins and B.J. Baylor/Deshaun Fenwick did. Charbonnet got his yards in spurts, but he never got the breakaway plays, and we were able to contain him for stretches where DTR was still forced to make plays himself.
This effort to contain UCLA’s RBs largely fell on the DL and our LBs, and I’d like to give them credit for that effort. Taki and Tuli look night and day better than the first few games this year, and they are consistently firing off the ball, resetting the LOS, and anchoring against UCLA’s double teams. We also saw more active play from Eddie and Sirmon this game where they triggered downhill right from the snap, and BG dialed up blitzes that were mostly well-timed and into the run. Playing a bit more aggressively didn’t stop with the LBs. Asa Turner looked quite a bit better taking over for an injured Cam Williams than he did last year when he was exposed in open space. Against UCLA, he showed more willingness to get involved in the run game as the box safety than we’ve seen from other safeties this season. There are still rough spots in his play (namely iso-man coverage), but his tackling was a boon to the defense.
The DTR factor was what ended up being the difference in this game. His dual-threat play making abilities are hard to deny, and his legs add a completely different dimension to the offense that makes our defense’ performance that much more impressive. With the added complexity of having to stop a multi-dimensional rushing attack, plus the run threat on conventional passing plays, I was worried that our defensive front that had been slow to react in previous weeks would get completely outflanked on a regular basis. However, we were able to hold UCLA to only 17 yards more than their season rushing average of 220 yards. Again, this is still pretty poor, but considering that its still fewer rushing yards than we gave up to Oregon State who didn’t have the dual-threat QB, I think we’re taking steps in the right direction.
Between the gradual steps forward from our defense, added clarity in our offensive identity, and the oh so exciting return of ZTF, we have an opportunity to stay competitive through out the rest of our schedule. Arizona this week should be a good test of how high our ceiling might be as we near full strength. While the Wildcats are at the bottom of the conference, and we share the unfortunate distinction of having lost to Big Sky opponents, now is not the time to get complacent with our recent progress. We need to be bold and continue to experiment. We need to try new game plans, new personnel, new tactics, and we need to see what works. Our loftiest goals are out of the picture, so now we need to figure out how we’re going to win our rivalry games.
On to Arizona.