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Three Things We Learned: Colorado

Ja’Lynn Polk’s triumphantly unexpected return provided a lone bright spot against the Buffs

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Montana at Washington Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. The Value of a Red Shirt

No one can say that the Huskies have been particularly smart or intentional about true freshman 5-star QB Sam Huard’s usage this season. I’ll run through it step-by-step before we get to Saturday’s game.

It was widely known coming into this season that the plan was ideally to redshirt Huard by having him play 4 or fewer games. When Washington got up by 35+ points against Arkansas State it made sense to get Huard into the game to get some reps in garbage time and see what he could do. Ultimately he played 11 offensive snaps in that game going 2/5 for 31 yards. Fine.

Then comes the Arizona game. Dylan Morris gets sacked and has a bloody nose. I’m sure the coaching staff thought there was a chance that he either had a broken nose or concussion and was potentially out for the rest of the game. If that’s the case then it absolutely makes sense to see what Huard can do in relief duty. So he goes into the game and hands the ball off 4 straight times as UW gets a 1st down. An Arizona player lines up in the neutral zone so he throws it deep on a free play. Now 2nd and 3 UW runs again. It becomes 3rd and 1 but there’s a false start so now it’s 3rd and 6 and Huard tries another deep shot that is incomplete. He’s now officially 0/1 for the game.

By the time that drive finishes the coaching staff knows that Morris is healthy enough to return to the game. The offense under Morris continued to look terrible against a bad Arizona team. At this point you’ve already used up 25% of Huard’s availability so why not play him at least another drive where you let him actually throw the ball? But no, Morris finishes it out and is able to secure the win although it took some help from Arizona.

We come now to the ASU game with Jimmy Lake not on the sidelines and up to 4 games remaining if UW can win at least 2 of the next 3 which at that point was the most likely outcome statistically. With both Donovan and Lake gone I can understand the logic behind saying we’re going to give Huard a chance to play several drives and if he clearly plays better and UW wins then screw the redshirt and let him start the final 3 games (including an assumed bowl).

Instead we got worst of just about all worlds. Dylan Morris led 2 scoring drives so UW was up 14-0 by the time Huard entered the game and that seemingly dispelled any notion of Huard wrenching control of the starting job. Then came the field position. In a rainstorm Huard’s drives in the 1st half started at his own 5 and his own 6. Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t lead either to a score. Then in the 2nd half he finally had good starting field position in ASU territory and UW went: Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Run to score the touchdown with Huard taken out on the last of those plays. That put UW up 24-14 and ASU went on a 21-0 run from there to doom the Dawgs.

Now we get to decision time. After the pick-6 at the end of the ASU game there wasn’t a Husky fan without the last name of Morris who truly wanted to see Dylan start against Colorado. Do you give Huard the start anyways and hope he leads Washington to 2 wins and then a bowl game to provide some momentum for the next coach heading into the offseason? It would appear the answer was no. The Huskies continued to give reps to their #2 (Patrick O’Brien led 2 drives that gained 9 total yards) showing they were still not leaving things entirely in Morris’ hands. Even in the “saving Huard for WSU” scenario there was the chance UW would beat Colorado with Morris, let Huard play against WSU, win, then have to sit Huard again for the bowl game.

That outcome was wrenched away by the 2 fumbled QB-Center exchanges which gave Colorado 10 free points and so here we are. I generally don’t want the AD meddling in football affairs but Jen Cohen has to try to tell Bob Gregory that Huard’s starting against WSU, right? Maybe Sam looks lost against the Cougars. But the upside of Huard leading the team to an Apple Cup win and helping to show prospective HC/OC candidates what they have to work with has to be worth it. If we see Jalen McMillan or Rome Odunze enter the transfer portal without ever seriously getting to work with Huard it’s going to be a colossal disappointment.

The actions so far have already shown that preserving Sam Huard’s redshirt has been more important than winning ball games. So just go ahead and take the next step and let him sink or swim on Friday.

2. Washington’s Training Staff Have Magical Healing Powers

When Zion Tupuola-Fetui injured his Achilles tendon during spring practices it seemed automatic that he would miss the entire season. Instead he came back in just under 6 months and while he hasn’t looked exactly like his old self he hasn’t been a shell of his pre-injury self.

Then we had the story of Ja’Lynn Polk who suffered what was called a season ending injury on the first drive of Washington’s season against Montana. Yet the last several weeks it was noted that Polk was in uniform during pre-game warmups and seemingly at least a participant in activities even if he didn’t enter the game. Well he did enter the game against Colorado and ended up with 2 catches for 60 yards including a 55-yard catch and run that gave Washington a late chance at a comeback. On that final drive Polk narrowly missed a deflected pass that would’ve given him a chance for another huge play if he had been able to reel it in.

It’s not often you see a program end up with 2 players in 1 season who were seemingly lost to a season-ending injury who come back and are able to make an impact. Washington has seen a ridiculous amount of injuries this season but it is still impressive that the timelines seem to be so much shorter than they could have been. Or maybe Jimmy Lake in this one single aspect of coaching subscribed to the under-promise, over-deliver mantra (because lord knows he certainly didn’t in most respects)

And yet...the football gods have smited their fair share of Husky players. A list of potentially major contributors to miss games due to injury this season and how many games they’ve missed: Ja’Lynn Polk (9), Zion Tupuola-Fetui (6), Richard Newton (5), Jack Westover (5), Edefuan Ulofoshio (5), Ryan Bowman (4), Cam Williams (4), Terrell Bynum (3), Cade Otton (3), Rome Odunze (2), Kamari Pleasant (2), Sean McGrew (2), Jaxson Kirkland (2), Faatui Tuitele (2), Jalen McMillan (1), Trent McDuffie (1), Brendan Radley-Hiles (1), Alex Cook (1).

I went back and looked at the initial Husky depth chart for Montana. I think it could be argued that there were 42 players who were reasonably expected to be key legitimate contributors. 18 of them have missed at least one full game due to injury for a total of 58 games (not counting for instance McGrew and Pleasant not getting into the first 2 games due to coaching decisions). Plus there’s the portions of the games in which they got hurt and some like Tuli Letuligasenoa who has played in every game but missed time in a few of them.

It’s certainly not an excuse for Jimmy Lake’s performance as the head coach but it does seem like more key guys have been nicked up with nagging injuries than we’ve seen in years past.

3. Ahead of Our Skis

When Carson Bruener won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week there were a lot of questions. For instance, why the hell hasn’t he been playing since the start of the year? Unfortunately we’ve gotten part of the answer in recent weeks. After the Oregon game Bruener had played 205 defensive snaps and had 41 tackles. Per PFF he had missed only 5 total tackle attempts and that percentage was easily better than Jackson Sirmon.

Fast forward to the end of the Colorado game. Bruener continued to fair well by getting pressure on Drew Lewis when rushing the passer. But the reliability in run defense hasn’t quite been there despite UW’s overall solid defensive performance. Over the past 2 weeks Bruener has 17 total tackles but has missed 9 of them. Putting it all together Bruener now for the season has a higher missed tackle rate than Ulofoshio, Sirmon, Heimuli, or Tafisi.

This is still Bruener’s first career college action. There’s plenty of time for him to step up and improve. It just looks like we may have jumped the gun a bit declaring that next year he should be the surefire starter alongside Edefuan Ulofoshio and ahead of Jackson Sirmon. Would it shock me if that scenario does end up coming to pass? Not at all. You don’t normally see redshirt freshmen able to have single game highs like Bruener did against Stanford. However he’ll squarely be in competition mode fighting for a spot under the new coaching staff next season as long as Sirmon and Ulofoshio are still around.