2-3 & 1-1. Not where we thought we’d be heading into bye week during the preseason, but not surprising given how the season started. It’s also emblematic of our dramatic fall from perennial conference contender to a merely average program. Not an average team. Program.
While the season has unfolded to show Montana is among the best in the FCS, Michigan is in fact a top 10 team, and Oregon State is leaps and bounds ahead of where all pundits had penciled them in on their pre-season conference power rankings, none of that should matter to Husky fans. The program is wasting away without clear forward direction or identity. This past weekend’s game is merely the latest illustration of the deep seeded mismanagement and misalignment that is becoming increasingly obvious to all spectators.
What’s Effective and What’s Winning Football
What continues to baffle me about this team is how it is so talented and so effective at doing some things (ex. pass defense), and yet seemingly unable to get out of its own way and play winning, complimentary football. Through five games, we’ve been outgained 583 to 898 on the ground (Arkansas St. being the only opponent held under 100 yards), despite the rushing offense and defense being the focus of the entire offseason. To put our rushing margin into perspective, we are on pace to be outgained by 819 yards on the ground over a 13 game season (presumptive, I know). The 2018 Washington State Cougars, the last of Leach’s decent WSU teams, was outrushed by 820 yards in 13 games. We’ve also only won the turnover battle once and first down margin twice.
The stats are stark, but they are only illustrations and symptoms of underlying issues. For weeks now, we’ve been searching for answers to our offensive and defensive challenges, and yet we haven’t seen consistent adjustments or progressive improvements. Every week seems to be another attempt at reinventing the wheel by going back to the same game plan only to start over from scratch in desperation or to abandon what’s working for the familiar. We’ve run zone and split zone 64 times for a grand total of 229 yards (~3.5 ypc) despite fierce backside pursuit and persistent interior penetration from opposing DLs. How do we try to jump start the zone run game? Sporadic window dressing in the form of jet motion. As one would expect, that hasn’t been working. You want to know why? Its because we’ve only handed off on the jet motion 6 times for 36 yards out of 37 run plays with motion...
Again, this is just one illustration of our bigger problem with predictability. On this past week’s All We Hear is Purple podcast (shameless plug here), I mentioned how even the reasonably sharp fan could start to predict the plays like they were Tony Romo. Based on what I had seen in previous weeks, a RB & an attached TE lined up on the same side of a shotgun formation was probably a weakside zone run was coming, a RB & an H-back on opposite sides of a shotgun formation meant there was probably a zone slice play coming, and a RB & an attached TE on opposite sides of a shotgun formation was probably a passing play. After the game, I charted our offense in the 2nd quarter after we likely moved off of our scripted plays, and the results were pretty interesting. Based on my anecdotal observations on the podcast, someone could’ve correctly guessed the exact run play or that it was a pass play 11/19 times based simply on the alignment of the RBs and TEs. Obviously that’s pretty close to a 50/50 guess on a rather small sample size, but those are good odds when guessing the direction AND blocking scheme based on so basic of a tell. Further more, on the 8 plays we ran that broke with our tendencies, we averaged 8.8 yards per play on 3 passes and 5 runs (game average yards per play was 5.2). A less predictable offense is often a more efficient offense. If defenses can’t key in on tendencies, then you can keep them on their heels and avoid some of the trickier coverage and pressure packages that are more likely to lead to turnovers
I don’t imagine that our lack of play diversity and predictability is because the staff’s lack of exposure to all of the various concepts that are out there, but we’ve yet to see very many of them. On the podcast, Andrew asked me what I’d like to see out of the offense heading into the game versus OSU and moving forward, and my answer was to take advantage of some of the low-hanging fruit. I wanted to see an increase use of motion (and actually handing off or targeting the motion man), increase use of WR screens (although screens in general would be good, and I think we saw our first slip screen this past weekend), more RPOs, and more play action. The over arching goal would be to allow the scheme to do more of the heavy lifting for Morris and the OL. We need to simplify coverage reads and force the defense to tip their hand with motion, reduce the number of reads for Morris with one-read screens, to take pressure off of the OL by getting the ball out to the perimeter more quickly and more often, and move the focal point of the offense off of the LOS and onto the perimeter where our WRs are proving to be our best talent mismatch.
Despite posting our best rushing performance against a P5 opponent this season, we can’t afford to let this be a red herring. We can’t rely on the gimmicky wildcat to produce half of our rushing every week, and getting stuffed on our last 3rd down is a good reminder of that. We need an expanded play sheet, and we need to capitalize on it. This is entirely on the staff to figure out.
A Tale of Two Proteges
Heading into this bye week we stand at a cross roads. After our loss to Montana, I circled Arkansas State and this week on the calendar. If we lost in incompetent fashion to Arkansas State, then it was time to go full crisis-mode and pull the plug. If we could show a pulse through the first five games of the season, then the bye week would be the next juncture where both Jimmy Lake and Jen Cohen would need to take a long and honest look at the state of the program and his staff’s performance on game day, during practice, and on the recruiting trail. Bye weeks are the best chance for a smooth mid-season transition. I doubt that we will see true turnover on the staff, as it would’ve already happened by the time this article posts, but I can see roles being further shuffled moving forward (read: offensive play calling).
This week’s likely reflection should also play a role in how this program is remolded over this upcoming offseason, and this past week’s opponent is a good reason why. Since Jonathan Smith’s departure from Chris Petersen’s staff to take over at his alma mater, the two programs have been on divergent paths. The least popular of Petersen’s coordinators has resurrected a conference doormat to hold sole possession of the Pac-12 North lead, while one of the fastest rising assistants on the Petersen staff has taken over from the master and hasn’t been able to correct the slow decent from the highs of our 2016 playoff run. After taking a closer look, I was surprised by how different the results have been for the two coaches who have taken surprisingly similar approaches at two very different programs.
Upon his hiring, Jimmy Lake’s most exciting quality was his youthful energy and supposed desire to aggressively pursue UW’s loftiest goals. We had taken this to mean an earnest pursuit of big time coordinators and assistants, star recruits, and an edge to the team. However, since his hiring, we have been largely underwhelmed by internal promotions, unimpressive recruiting, and an uncertain program identity that is struggling to retain remnants of the Petersen era culture and develop its own unique identity under Lake.
Smith, on the other hand, moved quietly to assemble his staff and rebuild the program from the ground up. His staff was filled out with relatively anonymous names, but they were coaches who had an understanding of the challenges that OSU faced and the winning blueprint. All of his assistant HCs and coordinators are either from or went to school in the Pacific Northwest, their coaching experiences were at programs with a strong developmental culture (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Montana), and they share the roles and responsibilities to create a more collaborative environment (pass game coordinator, run game coordinator, and an OC). Smith had to rebuild from scratch, but he had a vision and was given a clean canvas to project his vision onto.
This is all to say that there’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint for a head coach to follow when building their program, and there’s no obvious failproof moves to make this offseason. Each program has their strengths and challenges, and its up to the HC to figure out the winning blueprint that fits the program. No amount of money can fix a program’s culture or buy them an identity, and the coach that resonates locally, nationally, and can develop talent is few and far between. This is not an exact science, and there are no sure things. As obvious as a firing might be, finding the replacement might be equally uncertain. All moves need to be measured, but at the end of the day there needs to be accountability.
This will be a telling two weeks for this staff.