I sat in the rain and cold for three hours this weekend (with the other 17 people at Husky Stadium) to see our team lose a game that we almost certainly should’ve won. It was a cruel twist of fate that we were given the glimmer of hope early in the game, only for the same recurring nightmare to repeat itself. Someone even hit my car while I was leaving the parking lot. If it wasn’t for the quality company, Saturday would’ve been a total loss.
But here we are just 36 hours later, and we are finally in a position to be optimistic again. We have a clean slate and wide open opportunities.
Ground into Submission
Before I dive into the spicier news & topics of the day, I want to hit on a couple of things I noticed in the game against ASU.
The most prominent thing that I noticed was the difference between this team’s performance against Oregon and ASU, or rather the lack of noticeable difference. Once I made up my mind that Donovan had to go, I fell into the camp that thought his dismissal would be a bit of “addition by subtraction”. However, that’s not quite what we saw.
We all knew that we weren’t going to see a brand new offense just 5 days after firing the OC, and the first quarter had a lot of promise and creativity, but I was surprised by how quickly we fell back into the rhythm of 3 & outs and predictable play calling with Junior Adams at the helm. It’s worth noting that there was an effort to stream line the offense to get Sam Huard more reps, but that almost makes it all that much worse. In a simplified offense, we still couldn’t execute when it mattered (much like the rest of the season). It was refreshing to see Cam Davis continue to play hard when given snaps, and a more diverse run game found a little room to operate, but the offense as a whole continues to be a drag on this team.
Of particular concern, Morris regressed back to the familiar passer we’ve seen all season after we got past our early scripted plays, and he consistently missed open receivers in his progressions and misplaced passes when he did see the open man. Drops have been a much bigger issue with our receivers ever since Morris became our starter last season, and I chalked it up to having young receivers, but when we are seeing consistently inaccurate throws and even our most sure-handed targets (like Otton) are having trouble bringing in passes, it might be on the QB.
At this point, I am ready to move on from Morris. He may still prove to be a salvageable QB in the right scheme and with a better QB coach, but if Huard is able to play anywhere close to his billing, then he would be an immediate upgrade behind center. As many have already pointed out, the problem is now about how to manage his redshirt status. He can play in one of our last two games while preserving his redshirt, but we need to win out to earn bowl eligibility. The Huards have expressed a desire to maintain Sam’s redshirt, and I would hope that the current staff honor those wishes as best possible. The program as a whole needs to keep an eye on the future, and Huard is a key building block for the future of this program. We obviously want to win out (especially for the sake of my Apple Cup bragging rights around the office), but the benefits of bowl practices (the biggest long-term benefit of going to a non-NY6 bowl) would be muted given the now-certain staff turnover. Therefore, the staff should focus be extra careful not to burn bridges in this transition period (not that it’s really their job to do so at this point).
Blow It Up & Start Over
“ ‘What must happen eventually must happen immediately.’ -Andy Staples”
-Coach B (If you watch The Office; yes, its a cheesy joke)
Now on to the news of the week. Jimmy Lake is gone.
I’ve already spoken at length about what I thought about Lake’s performance as HC, so I won’t rehash it all. Basically, I think it was time for us to make a move. 13 games is a very quick tenure, but I firmly believe that we had seen enough to make a fair assessment of his abilities (and his inability to give us any other options). Lake was an excellent assistant who simply hasn’t shown that he has a strong grasp of how to lead a program from the top. Given that one of my biggest gripes with Lake was his unwillingness to make changes to address his and the team’s short comings, it was fitting that Jen Cohen finally made a quick and drastic change by dismissing Lake.
As I mentioned in the intro, once the decision is made to fire the head coach and start over, the fanbase gets to fantasize about the limitless opportunities that the clean slate affords us. However, the next step is really the hardest part. The University of Washington is a very enticing job. We are a one of the top brands in a Power 5 program (at least the George Kliavkoff would like us to think so), we have solid facilities, we are located in close proximity to local and regional talent, we have had recent success, and we have a talented roster. However, we aren’t anywhere close to being the best job available this off season, we don’t have the head start that some schools like USC and LSU have had, we don’t have the deepest pockets on the market, and the talented roster that we’ve assembled might not be intact to be a selling point to the next coach if we don’t nail this hire. There isn’t a future Hall of Fame head coach waiting in the wings to jump on this job like Chris Petersen, so we’ll need to carefully focus our efforts.
I am a firm believer in fit, but I also recognize that we need significant change to get us back on track. Fit can mean a lot of things other than familiarity, and I think we need to stress that throughout this process. Don James was a Mid-West and Southeast guy with no West Coast ties, but he fit what we needed out of a HC. Similar things could be said about Pete Carroll and SoCal prior to his USC tenure, and it could also be said of Cristobal and Oregon. With that being said, I am hoping for us to move outside of the Chris Petersen coaching tree with this next hire without completely abandoning the foundation that he laid here. We need a more seasoned head coach who is willing to bring in fresh ideas, renewed energy, and credibility to restore some of the shine that was lost during Lake’s tenure. I’m not opposed to hiring a coach that isn’t a sitting head coach, but I’d absolutely want someone who has HC experience and a network large enough to build a staff that has had success the roles that they’d be hired to fill (a major shortcoming of Lake’s).
Obviously we will be doing our homework on the major candidates like Matt Campbell, Luke Fickell, and Billy Napier, but there are a couple of other candidates out there that I believe might be sneaky good fits and might end up being better than just back-up options. One dark horse that I’d be excited about is Bronco Mendenhall. Max did an excellent job of pulling together a primer on all of the candidates associated with the UW job, including Mendenhall, and here’s what he had to say:
Most Recent Role: Head Coach at Virginia (since 2016), 36-36 record
Why He Might Make Sense: Mendenhall has been a head coach for 16 years but is still just 55 years old so he’s not over the hill by any stretch. Virginia is not exactly known as a traditional football power but starting with year 3 of the rebuild he has gotten them to 28-18 over the past 4 seasons including a divisional win in 2019 and a chance at another one this year. Despite Mendenhall’s offensive pedigree, the Cavs have the 5th ranked offense in the country in yards per game right now with a dynamic passing attack at a school that definitely also makes academics a priority. And while that has all happened on the East coast, before that Mendenhall spent almost all of the previous 30 years working in the West region. At the very least UW would be hiring a coach who has had 1 losing regular season in his career and it was in his first year of a rebuild so there’s a high floor.
Why He Wouldn’t: Washington just fired a head coach who had a background as a defensive coordinator/DB coach and now they’re hiring another one? Uh uh. The 135-79 overall record looks nice but there aren’t a lot of true achievements there. The last time his team finished ranked in the AP Poll at season’s end was in 2009 after a win in the Las Vegas Bowl. Is this a coach who can get UW back to regularly competing for conference championships when he couldn’t secure the #2 spot in the ACC behind Clemson?
The main points on Mendenhall’s resume that stand out to me are his sustained record of success at multiple levels, his ability to foster a high-powered offense despite a defensive background, and established connections across the country. Among the current candidates, Mendenhall’s 16 years as a HC are only rivaled by Dave Clawson and Bob Stoops, and Mendenhall has had significantly more success than Clawson. While many of those years were spent at the G5 level with BYU, his time at UVA has shown that his success at BYU was no fluke and that he could build a non-traditional football program at an academically-focused school into a respectable program.
When it comes to the Xs & Os, Mendenhall has a defensive background (he helped develop the early West Coast branch of the 3-3-5 defensive tree with Rocky Long in New Mexico), but he’s had sustained offensive success with Robert Anae as his OC. He’s had experience working with a variety of QB talent, including Max Hall, Taysom Hill, Bryce Perkins, and current top 5 passer Brennan Armstrong. The success of those QBs could be a selling point to Huard, and Anae’s decades of OL experience might help whip our OL back into shape from a schematic perspective. In my opinion, Anae should’ve been a candidate to replace Donovan if Lake was retained, so the prospect of landing both Mendenhall and Anae would be enticing.
A return west would likely be a welcomed move for Mendenhall as he is a Utah native, Oregon State alum, and much of his staff have West Coast ties. Additionally, the geographically-diverse connections that Mendenhall has established at BYU and UVA could be useful in a rejuvenated recruiting strategy. That being said, Mendenhall’s coaching tree is relative to his long tenure as a HC, so it might be tough for him to fill out a staff if he doesn’t bring his whole staff with him.
I’ll be keeping an eye on other names as they pop up, but the sooner we make a decision the better. With the early signing period coming up in a month, time is of the essence to get this program back on track.