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Mailbag: “Eternally Dammed” Edition

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Not one question asking me how I’m going to spend my bye week Saturday. And I thought we were friends.

Cal v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Let’s go ahead and start with the defensive concerns before we get to the offensive concerns...and the coaching concerns...and the state of the program concerns.

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Why are we so bad at stopping the run this year? Loss of Malloe and on-the-job training for Rip Rowan? DC Bob Gregory? Lack of Vita Vea/Greg Gaines-type players? Something else? - fwdawg

You know that fwdawg is concerned about the rushing defense because they submitted 3 separate questions about it in slightly different forms. There were multiple times in the off-season that both Jimmy Lake and Bob Gregory said that the number one priority for the defense was figuring out how to do a better job against the run. In the spring game we saw the defense more often trotting out a look with 3 DL on standard downs which would seemingly help in that regard.

Between Oregon State’s reliance on running the ball and the injury to nickel corner Bookie Radley-Hiles this seemed like a perfect time for Washington to go with a heavier front. And they did to some degree. Based on snap count averages we went with 3 DL, 4 DBs about half the game and 2 DL, 5 DBs half the game. Over the course of the season that has helped (a little bit). Washington’s opponents are averaging 4.63 yards per carry when they go with 3 DL and 5.18 when there are 2 DL per Sport Info Solutions charting.

However, Oregon State actually did better when Washington went with bulkier personnel. The Beavers averaged 5.45 ypc against the 3 DL look and 4.38 ypc versus 2 DL. And it’s not as if that’s a limited sample size with the 3 DL. 71% of Oregon State’s runs saw Huskies going with a heavier front and it usually didn’t matter.

Yes, the coaching staff had some moving around this off-season. Essentially swapping out Pete Kwiatkowski for first-time coach Rip Rowan likely didn’t help things a ton. At the same time, the defensive tackles still have Ikaika Malloe in the building. There’s only one true freshman heavily involved in the rotation. Washington isn’t putting out a completely new defense.

I think the biggest difference has to be viewed as the loss of a Danny Shelton, Greg Gaines, Vita Vea, or Levi Onwuzurike up front. Tuli and Taki are showing flashes of improvement as I touched in on my 3 Things We Learned piece yesterday. But as it currently stands I don’t see either of them getting drafted earlier than maybe the 6th round without a substantial improvement. The coaching staff could improve things by always putting 8 in the box and exclusively playing the run. But if you’re looking for why we’ve seen worse results over the last 9 games with largely the same scheme it comes down to the players. Now whether you also blame the coaching staff for not developing them properly is up to you.

How is it that with a defensive HC, the Huskies have no answer against ANY running game? - LiveInHoth

Washington gave up 4.1 yards per carry to a Cal team that came in with 3 different running backs averaging 6+ yards per carry. They didn’t completely shut down the run and Garbers obviously had some big plays late but I would argue the pass defense was a bigger issue than the run defense in that particular game.

And it’s not a matter of Lake/Gregory not knowing how to stop the opponent’s running game. It’s not being able to stop it without making substantial sacrifices in pass defense. Washington has now lost multiple games in which opposing QBs threw for fewer than 50 yards. That should be completely impossible. There is absolutely a balance to be found there.

The more resources committed to playing in the box the better you’ll do against the run and the worse you’ll do against the pass (and also the more boom/bust your defense will become). There is an equilibrium point that is going to result in the optimum settings of results for the defense. Washington in the past has found it at close to the level they’ve put out so far. Clearly it’s not working and the coaching staff absolutely has to adjust in the bye week and be comfortable with either putting corners on an island more often or playing their safeties shallower at a bare minimum to find out where that point is with this team. Because this defense can’t create havoc plays at the rate necessary to stop opponents willing to go 4-6 yards on every play.

Are you able to find and discuss info on how Mr. Smalls is doing? If you’ve already discussed it, I missed it. But with how athletic he is, just would like to know why he isn’t on the field much. Are there issues with coaches? With him? Just would like to know. - Huskymoon57

I’m not going to pretend I have the sources to say how Smalls’ interpersonal relationships with the coaching staff are going. However I can talk a little bit about what we’ve seen on the field. Yes, in the 247 Sports composite rankings Sav’ell Smalls wound up as a 5-star. But in the 247 independent rankings which I think usually do a better job for NW prospects he was 59th overall which represented a clear tier down from a true prodigy type guy. And his recruitment seemingly reflected this as it seemed that most of the blue bloods had started to drop out before he ended up going with Washington. There was also the fact that even the recruiting services admitted that Smalls was fairly raw and would need some time to adjust to the college game.

Still, Brandon Huffman who is 247’s local scout projected him as a future 1st round pick. Now that we’re partway through year 2 of his time in the program you would certainly hope that Smalls would be looking increasingly comfortable. This is about the time in his career when Joe Tryon started to have the occasional dominant half and we saw flashes from ZTF.

Instead, Smalls has struggled on the field. He has 6 pressures in 59 pass rush opportunities this season which is solid but certainly not spectacular. Only 1 of those 6 is a QB hit however so he hasn’t exactly been a split second away from piling up sacks. But that pressure rate is at least respectable. It’s 3rd on the team among the outside linebackers behind Bowman and Trice but ahead of McDonald and Martin.

The bigger problem is that Smalls just hasn’t found ways to get to the ball. He has 1 tackle this season and 0 missed tackles. On 101 total defensive snaps he has only been in a position to attempt a tackle 1 time (you could argue 2 if you count a QB hit). I won’t pretend to have watched every Smalls snap but he just hasn’t shown the ability to both diagnose a play and use his athleticism to get to where the ball carrier is going.

I did go back and watch a 6 snap stretch he played in the 1st quarter versus OSU with an eye towards Smalls and on every run play it was either run to the opposite side of him or he got double teamed by a TE/RT combo. But even if that’s the case you would love for there to be some evidence of Smalls fighting through a block and going 100% to get involved in the play.

Before Lake hired Donovan there was a lot of talk about Kellen Moore who was caught up in a head coaching change in Dallas. Any idea how far discussions went and how seriously the Huskies were pursuing Moore? He’s killing it in the NFL - GU1966

This may come as a surprise but I actually got left out of the room during these negotiations. Clearly there was interest on Washington’s point and at least a tiny bit of interest on Moore’s part. Only the most delusional fans would have thought that if Dallas committed to wanting to keep Moore around that he would’ve come to Seattle. Unless your life’s ambition is to become a college football head coach as soon as possible there’s no way you take a pay cut to not become the OC of the Dallas Cowboys anymore.

If you go back and look at fan sentiment at the time it wasn’t 100% that Washington should heavily pursue Moore. There were some flashes with Dallas at his creativity but the team was also coming off an 8-8 season where they scored 24 points or fewer in all of their losses despite having some of the best offensive talent in the league. Plenty of Dallas fans would’ve been okay starting over with the coaching staff and letting Moore walk.

Ultimately though it was a moot point because Dallas wanted to keep him and they ponied up to do so. The University of Washington wasn’t going to out-bid Jerry Jones. If Chris Petersen had still been the head coach would Moore have taken less money to coach under his former mentor again? Still no but at least slightly plausible. It’s especially painful to look back given Dallas’ success this year but it’s not as if we wanted Moore when he was the QB coach and he decided to stay, then got promoted, then had success. It’s not a particularly interesting “What If?” in my mind because Moore made the easy and smart choice.

Seriously, has Dylan Morris ever impressed you beyond that one comeback win last year in a game where the offensive game plan was already terrible? It’s so hard to know if it’s Morris or Donovan that makes our offense look so bad but I’m tired of making excuses for either of them.- DepressedDawg

Let’s look at Morris’ career critically for a moment (but also fairly). His very first game was against Oregon State in a driving rainstorm in a game where the team ran for 5.5 yards per carry. He didn’t look especially impressive but his average depth of target was also just under 8 yards and he was pressured on 48% of dropbacks while getting sacked 0 times, committing 0 turnovers, and only throwing it away once. He gets the benefit of the doubt. Against Arizona the Huskies moved the ball at will and Morris struggled with his deep ball (1 of 6 on throws 20+ yards downfield) but still averaged 9.2 YPA.

Against Utah there’s no denying that Morris’ play helped contribute to the early deficit. He threw one terrible pick and had another potential pick-six dropped (he doesn’t get any blame for the hail mary INT just before halftime). I’m usually not the person to give too much credit to someone for being clutch, especially when they contributed for the need to be clutch, but there was no denying that Morris showed poise late in that game. Against Stanford I put the loss squarely on the defense and on any efficiency metric Morris performed extremely well, the Dawgs just never had the ball on offense and had a few holding penalties that killed drives.

Per PFF’s charting Morris was under pressure on 33% of dropbacks last year and only 2.6% of those pressures turned into a sack. He showed a real knack for finding ways to get out of trouble whether by sensing the pocket collapsing and rolling out or taking off and scrambling. He also had 12% of his targets dropped by receivers. Some of that is dependent on the QB throwing a catchable ball but there were also plenty of wide open easy drops.

Against Montana suddenly 30% of pressures turned into sacks and receivers still dropped 1 of every 8 throws as after the 1st drive UW was without their top-4 WRs. Morris doesn’t get quite the same benefit of the doubt as in the OSU game but he also certainly got no help from anyone else on the offense. Against Michigan 25% of pressures again became sacks as Morris clearly was holding onto the ball too long but the offensive line was under siege. I think given that Bynum was back and there was a full week to prepare with the WR injuries (even if it was against a good defense in his first road game) that this is the least excusable Morris performance.

I was impressed against Arkansas State even if they might be the worst defense in the country. He completed 5 of 8 passes 20+ yards downfield and a 6th was catchable. That deep ball accuracy was seemingly the biggest hole in his game during year 1 so it showed improvement. Then against Cal in the 2nd half we saw, for whatever reason, throwaways become an issue as Morris seemed to lose confidence. Finally versus OSU Morris’ confidence fully cratered as well as Donovan’s confidence in him. Morris only attempted one pass 20+ yards downfield and consequently had the lowest average depth of target of his career at 4.9. 27% of pressures became sacks and he looked completely helpless as Donovan did everything possible to avoid Morris having to throw the ball. It didn’t help that UW only ran play action on 6.8% of pass attempts despite running the ball on the majority of the plays. Are you f***ing kidding me?!?

When Donovan was at Penn State the offensive line was so bad that it permanently ruined Christian Hackenberg who went from a 5-star to both a college and NFL bust with irreparable habits from the constant pressure. There was the excuse at the time of sanctions ruining the talent base for the OL at PSU but we could be seeing version 2.0 with Morris right now. I happen to think the raw traits are still there for him and that the lack of creativity in the scheme is submarining his chance to succeed. And unfortunately we may be running out of time before that becomes ingrained and we never get to find out what might have been with a competent offensive coordinator.

Had UW not lost to Montana, would the screams for Lake to be fired be a loud or as many? Michigan is turning out to be really good, and Oregon State could win the North, basically. - Voice of Reason

I actually had a very similar thought late last week and narrowly kept myself from asking it in our writers’ slack group. What if this season had played out in exactly the same manner it did except that Montana had a defensive breakdown/missed a tackle on the final drive and Washington came back to win 14-13. That’s one drive changed out of the entire season. And yet I think it’s pretty undeniable that it would have a massive effect on people’s psyches.

Last season this argument worked as well. What if Washington didn’t get the call on Oregon State’s 4th and 1, gave up a TD, and narrowly lost? What if Dylan Morris’ throw for Cade Otton gets tipped at the line and UW doesn’t score on the final drive versus Utah? That’s potentially 2 total plays out of several hundred which make Washington 1-3 last season. In the case of Oregon State there was enough time left after that play that it’s tough to definitely say Washington loses that game if the Beavers score there but they certainly could have.

In the scenario for this season Washington probably still clings to the top-25 after week 1 because no one watched the game and AP voters are stubborn. There is probably a little more optimism going into the Michigan game but after that loss and then the Arkansas State game there are plenty of fans telling themselves that 2-1 against that slate was close to the expected outcome even if the offense has looked worse than expected. Then we narrowly defeat Cal and are 3-1 and again can justify that we always play Cal close. While the calls for Donovan’s head probably remain there are going to be a lot fewer upset with Lake given that he would’ve been 6-2 at that point in his career.

A disappointing loss to Oregon State with UW probably in the “Others Receiving Votes” category would’ve taken shine off the apple for sure. But having a winning record as we head to the bye versus a losing one really makes a difference mentally for a lot of people. As much as it shouldn’t that’s just then lens through which most casual fans view things.

I don’t know how much I’d be using the strength of schedule argument right about now though. Montana losing to Eastern hurts the (hopeful) argument that they had maybe the best defense in FCS. Michigan does indeed look like a top-ten team and if the final score had been 28-17 I’d probably feel like it was a respectable effort, but it wasn’t. Cal turned around and scored only 6 points against Washington State. Oregon State may be the 2nd best team in the North but they’re still around 50th in most of the advanced metrics. Put it all together and this team is a very middle of the road FBS team and a below average power conference one regardless of W/L.

Is Jimmy Lakes agent the only person who thinks he’s a good coach? - KPreston

How do you know that Jimmy Lake’s agent thinks that he’s a good coach? An agent doesn’t need to believe, they just need to get their client’s employer to believe.

Max, would you venture a three point plan that you’d like to see implemented during the bye week. - RockDawg

1. Take away play calling duties from John Donovan. I would have preferred it if Lake had fired Donovan on Sunday to make it clear that he is serious about changing things on that side of the ball. That didn’t happen and it’s clear it isn’t coming during the season so I’m not going to make this totally unrealistic. However I’m giving Junior Adams play calling. He’s the only other staff member who has any experience as an OC. He also is the position coach of the receivers and finding ways to get them the ball in space should be priority number one for the offense. I trust him to figure out ways to do that better than Donovan.

Maybe for some insane reason the locker room is in Donovan’s corner and they all love him as a person and for culture reasons this is untenable. Yes, it tells Donovan that he is a dead man walking. He should be and the players should know that he should be. If things don’t improve with Adams calling the plays then Jimmy can say it’s because Donovan’s system is broken and use that as justification to move on. But at this point it’s hard to imagine things getting worse and with the season’s goals dashed there’s not really a downside to finding out if there’s any way they can get better through radical change.

2. Play more single high safety to put 7 in the box in non-obvious passing situations. Washington’s next 2 games are against UCLA and Arizona. DTR is a dynamic runner and has really struggled with his accuracy. Yes, UCLA has killed teams by hitting on deep touchdowns and chunk plays downfield but they haven’t played against a corner trio like McDuffie, Gordon, and Bookie. They also have Zach Charbonnet who may be the best RB in the conference. If Washington consistently gets beat over the top in the passing game, so be it. Play the run and trust your corners.

Arizona has played 3 QBs this year and none are averaging more than 7 yards per attempt. They’ve combined to throw a pick on 5.5% of dropbacks. If they want to throw the ball all the time then thank the lord and don’t turn down the gift you’re getting.

3. Take the pulse of the locker room on Dylan Morris. I don’t think we’re at the point where the first move is to bench Morris as the QB. Especially given that I’m suggesting switching up play calling duties I would want to give Morris at least 2 games with someone else’s play calls before deciding whether or not to pull the plug. However if Morris continues to look like he has been truly damaged from the experience of the season so far then I’d gauge how well it would be received to put in Huard in the 2nd half against Arizona.

I still don’t think it’s particularly likely that would happen. And it’s probably not setting up Huard for success to then have his first 2 starts come at Stanford and home versus Oregon. If the move eventually happens it probably makes the most sense to pull the plug after Oregon and let Huard finish the year against Colorado and Washington State while preserving his redshirt. But I don’t see Lake sacrificing the Stanford/Oregon games if he honestly thinks that Huard by that point would be an upgrade over Morris. And without seeing Huard at practice it’s impossible to know if he’s grown enough in 2 months since the end of open practices for that to be the case

Is it bad that I’m not that bummed about the OSU loss, played a good team on road and lost by FG? - DawgsFan12

Yes, it’s bad. The death of a fanbase comes from apathy rather than disappointment. Although the latter usually turns into the former over more time than it has for a lot of fans this year.

How many games do you now think the Huskies will win this season? - Nyquillius Dillwad

Thank you for asking Mr. Dillwad. Or are we close enough that I should just call you Nyquillius?

Washington still has 3 games on their schedule where I expect them to be at least a 6-point favorite barring even further catastrophe: @Arizona, @Colorado, Washington State. The Dawgs absolutely need to take care of all of them and they really should. The Huskies may be 50-60th in the country bad but all of those teams are 80-90th in the country bad. That puts us at 5 wins with further games against UCLA, ASU, and Oregon at home plus at Stanford.

Oregon just lost on the farm this week and given UW’s track record against the Cardinal I don’t see them winning that game. While I still think Oregon is closer to the 20th best team in the country than they were the 3rd, they’re still likely the best team in the conference and as much as it hurts that’s going to be a very likely loss. That gives us home games against UCLA and Arizona State to decide bowl eligibility. It’s not a great sign for Washington that both of those teams average 195+ rushing yards per game given UW’s defensive weaknesses. UW will be an underdog in both games but I think the math would dictate that it’s more likely they go 1-1 at home than that they go 0-2.

That puts the final record at 6-6 and the Huskies just scrape by to get a bowl game.

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For those eager for a chance to mentally reset during the bye week, be on the lookout for our men’s basketball preview coverage starting tomorrow (especially 206er who keeps getting their MBB questions ignored. Sorry about that.)