As part of our summer coverage, we’re looking back at the extremely limited schedule UW was able to play in the 2020 season. Today, we’re rewinding the offense’s performance in the season opener against Arizona.
Heading into this game, the biggest question marks from the off season were still largely unanswered. The previous week’s Oregon State game answered the question of who was going to start at QB, but we still hadn’t seen very much of Dylan Morris and didn’t know what to make of him just yet. We had caught a glimpse at John Donovan’s offense, but given how the offense looked against the Beavers, every Husky fan tuning in was holding out hope that the conservative play calling was merely the result of a new QB, new offense, an abbreviated off season, and Donovan wanting to keep things simple to open the season.
Looking back at my post-game analysis of the Oregon State game and previewing the Arizona game, here’s what my thoughts were:
What baffled me was how few concepts we tried to utilize in the run game in response to the Beavers’ adjustments. We continued to utilize a lot of under center interior run concepts (primarily inside zone, A-Gap power, and Power), and while we used some “window dressing” in the form of motion and a handful of formations, we didn’t really change much.
...My guess is that we were trying to get away with the most vanilla set of plays possible. Additional play design concepts, such as screens, play action, motion, and RPOs, could go a long way in establishing a more diverse offense that will be able to maintain its efficiency through opponent’s adjustments.
...With so many areas for our Huskies to look to improve in, as well as what should be another decent talent advantage, we should again look to have a straightforward game plan that is predicated on execution and leveraging our strengths.
Basically, we as fans just didn’t have a lot to work with going into the Arizona game, and until we knew what Donovan’s offenses was all about, all we could ask for was more variety and strong execution.
1st Series - Washington 0 - Arizona 0
Donovan dials up an I-formation bootleg pass on the first play from scrimmage in a pretty bold first move. Given how heavily we leaned on the I-formation/heavy personnel run game the week before, I really liked this call. We were clearly looking for an early tone setter with either a designed deep shot to Ty Jones or the crosser to Terrell Bynum, but Morris made the smart play dumping the ball down to Otton for a nice gain. I like the idea of immediately playing off of the week before’s tendency with play action.
In a manageable second and medium, Donovan shows heavy personnel in I-formation again, but we shift into an empty set with all of our heavy personnel to the field side. Right out of the gates we see Donovan’s pro background come out in his game planning/play calling. On each of the first three plays from scrimmage we see Donovan utilize motion and formation shifts to probe the defense. These were likely part of a first series or first 10 play script that is especially common in the NFL. As the game progresses I expect to see less and less motion/shifts, but the idea here is that Donovan is forcing Arizona to tip their hand on defense so we can hone in on tendencies. Unfortunately, the play seems to be DOA with poor route spacing from the heavy personnel on an all-hitches concept into defensive numbers. I’m not sure if this play call was strictly to watch how the defense adjusted to personnel playing out of position on the shift, but it didn’t seem like we got the match up we were looking for and we’re lucky we didn’t get a negative play on the misfire.
Third and short we go with a pretty standard inside zone play out of shotgun 11 personnel, and in a continuation of the previous week’s challenges, we don’t seem to get the type of push at the LOS you’d expect from such a large line. Wattenberg in particular got stood up off the snap by Arizona’s NT (Roy Lopez, 6-2, 318). It looks like Ale was supposed to help out on a double team, but the early push from Lopez clogged up the interior and McGrew was held short of the line to gain. Early penetration on the interior kills inside runs, and another rough week for Wattenberg could stymie our downhill rushing game plan.
A bold fake punt call in negative territory keeps the offense on the field, and Donovan dials up another downhill run out of heavy personnel. This time we run inside power with Bainivalu looking to lead the charge up the A-gap, and overall our line & TEs get great push up the playside flank. However, the key for power runs like this is to utilize misdirection and the pulling line man to create a numbers advantage at the point of attack, and the jet motion (Bynum on this play) was mistimed where an astute contain defender could’ve read that Bynum wasn’t going to get the ball by the time the ball was snapped. The defense rallied hard, and McGrew was again held to a minimal gain. This play simply needed better execution.
Trying to dig out the second down hole, we roll with another I-formation bootleg pass that was essentially the first play of the game run back again. This time, Morris avoids having early pressure and he uncorks a pass to Ty Jones. An untimely non-call on defensive holding/PI makes the play seem more out of sync than it actually was. Jones smoked the DB on a double move and should’ve come away with chunk yardage if it weren’t for the hold. Ultimately ball don’t lie in football too, and on the very next play
2nd Series - Washington 7 - Arizona 0
After a quick defensive possession, Morris and the defense trot back out with a pretty long field ahead of them. Still running the last few of the scripted plays, we roll with an empty set, only to motion McGrew into the backfield and again run a quick hitting all-hitches concept. This time, with lighter personnel and better designed formational spacing, Morris carves up Arizona’s soft zone for quick first down pass to Otton. The read was straight forward, and there was no hesitation from Morris. Solid play.
Again, staying dedicated to the aggressive play calling strategy, Donovan dials up a deep shot double play action look with both jet motion and RB ball fakes. I like the call, but again we run into some timing issues with the jet motion that kind of kill the first fake, and Morris sort of blindly chucked the ball down field instead of dumping it off to Bynum for a potential catch-and-run situation. I’ll chalk this play up to an antsy QB getting a little too eager to show off his arm. The silver lining here is that our OL kept Morris clean with an awesome looking pocket.
Anyways, we actually managed to get a defensive holding penalty that bailed us out from behind the sticks, so right back to first down. Another downhill, under center, heavy personnel run play on first down, and again Wattenberg gets bulldozed by the NT. Bad rep for Wattenberg, and another play behind the sticks.
Looking for answers, Donovan dials up back to back passes to Otton. The first was out of another empty backfield look with a quick hitting hitches concept on one side & curl-flat concept on the other. However, this time Otton, as the inside receiver on the hitches concept, broke to the inside to keep hunting for space over the middle and Morris hit him in stride for the first down. With a fresh set of downs, Donovan again dialed up a shot play. This time sticking with the hot hand, he calls a play action scissors concept for Otton and Westover that shakes Otton loose over the middle in 1-on-1 coverage for 28 yards. Its starting to feel like Morris, Otton, and Donovan are finding their rhythm.
Momentum squarely on our side, we should be able to keep the foot on the gas, go hurry up, and pound the ball up the middle for the score. Quick runs for 10 yards and 4 yards from McGrew put us at the 1-yard line with fresh set of downs. However, execution again stymies a promising drive. A failed QB sneak, followed by a mishandled under center triple option play, followed by a well-covered pass play has Peyton Henry trotting out for a field goal after 4 offensive plays inside the 5. This is not how a supposed grit ‘n grind offense should be finishing drives...
3rd Series - Washington 10 - Arizona 0
A “quick change” possession inside the Arizona 10-yard line is a total gift from the defense after an Ulofoshio strip-sack. I was brought up in the school of thought that you go for the jugular in these turnover possessions to keep your opponent on their heels, but being this close to the endzone, and given how poorly the last possession turned out, I’m all for Donovan staying vanilla and pounding the rock. A couple in-game adjustment from Donovan that are starting to be more evident on this series are to run away from the NT and utilize quick hitting run plays that widen gaps rather than bully the defense off the LOS. The two play side double teams are washing the aggressive Arizona DL to the backside of the play where Wattenberg can get away with merely pinning his man away from the play.
1 play later, touchdown Washington.
We might be on to their run defense.
4th Series - Washington 17 - Arizona 0
Another quick series from the defense gets the offense the ball back at the UW 35-yard line, and I might’ve gotten ahead of myself. We dial up another downhill I-formation power play into the strong side (NT side) of the defensive front and are again stoned at the line... Not a great start to the possession.
End of the 1st quarter.
Still with the ball in our possession, and now in a 2nd down hole, we go for the shot play again. I appreciate the aggressive play calling from Donovan, and I like the looks that we’re getting, but it’d be nice not to need so many of them because we’re behind the sticks. Anyways, we’re passing into a blitz that get’s picked up nicely by our line. 1-on-1 coverage for McMillan got him a great look, and he blazed right past the CB. Only problem here is that the ball sailed just past McMillan on what should’ve been a house call. Morris and McMillan were really just 1 yard off on their timing, but now we’re back to 3rd & long.
A deep out to Bynum digs us out out of our 3rd down hole, but another I-formation ISO play again gets us behind the sticks. Maybe we shouldn’t be running that play anymore?
What do we do when we need to get back into the groove? Pass to Otton. Another empty set quick pass to Otton probing the defense over the middle gets us back on track. 3rd & short.
Back in a familiar short yardage situation that I’m sure Donovan would like to gain confidence in, we roll out heavy personnel again, but this time we don’t bludgeon up the middle with a FB. Instead we call a singleback A-gap power play (not tremendously different from any other power play), but Pleasant navigates the strong push along the left side of the line and powers his way to a first down. A classic example of execution winning out over a less than ideal play call.
Finally looking to get running wide, Donovan calls a shotgun stretch play that is again blown up by the Arizona NT, except this time he blows past Ale and immediately shuts down the play. Maybe we should focus on eliminating this guy?
An incomplete pass over the middle and a gutsy dart on the move to Ty Jones over the middle and between defenders gets the offense into the redzone. Finally going back to the singleback quick hitting types of run plays that worked on the previous possession, we dial up an Otton-lead run out of a bunch set, and this clever little quick counter play with Otton again leading the charge through the hole.
Hard running from Newton, another TE-insert gap run, and a goal line dive play with 6 OL punch it in for 6. We’re starting to look like a coherent run game.
5th Series - Washington 24 - Arizona 0
Backed up deep in our own territory to start this possession, Donovan makes the understandable decision to run the ball. Thankfully it wasn’t another I-formation bludgeoning, and Pleasant showed of a little vision and burst to get a nice chunk play run.
Donovan staying on script follows up the big first down run with a shot play. Too bad the ball sailed on Morris. 2nd & long.
Right back to the well, Pleasant again shows off some tough running and surprising footwork bouncing and spinning his way down field up the middle on a shotgun gap play where our iOL finally got some positive push.
Cam Davis subs in for Pleasant, and we finally get to see him in extended action. He immediately snags a tough pass in the flat to convert for a first down, and he follows it up with a tough stretch play where he exhibits the same sort of vision and burst that made Gaskin a workhorse back. A 2nd down drop from Odunze again puts Davis in the spotlight with another tough 3rd down snag to nearly convert for first down.
The next real significant play on this possession comes a few plays later when on yet another 2nd & long shot play Morris heaves a beautiful deep pass to McMillan who again beat his defender straight up and nearly hauled in what should’ve been a dagger shot. However, that’s not what happened as the defender popped the ball out at the last minute in surprisingly similar fashion to Odunze’s drop earlier in the drive. To make matters even worse, Puka Nacua, who had been fairly quiet aside from his early TD catch, let the 3rd down pass bounce off of his hands on a wide open slant. For the first time this game, punt.
6th Series - Washington 24 - Arizona 0
Heading into the second half, I’m fully expecting to see us kill the clock as much as possible while still coming away with points every possession. Right on cue, we come out running the ball with our first snap being us finally calling Bynum’s number on a jet motion for a solid gain of 12. Not to let things get stale, we follow up the jet sweep with slip screen to McGrew that nearly breaks loose but gets tripped up at the last minute.
Keeping on track with another quick hitting run, a nifty reverse to McMillan off of the jet motion, and another great run from Pleasant up the middle and we’re back in the endzone. Touchdown Washington.
7th Series - Washington 30 - Arizona 0
Again gifted with a possession that starts in positive territory, Donovan goes right back to what was working on the previous drive. A combination of quick timing/spacing concept passes over the middle, quick hitting runs out of 11 or 12 personnel both up the middle and out wide, and a healthy dose of pulling on counter plays kept the offense ahead of the sticks the whole drive, and with the coup de grace coming from Otton over the middle. As any good offensive coordinator should, Donovan found what worked kept going back to those same plays until Arizona stopped it.
8th Series - Washington 37 - Arizona 0
At this point, the game is already getting out of hand for Arizona, and I’d expect full-blown 4 minute offense mode to shorten the game. We don’t need any injuries, and we might start rotating in the back ups for reps. Ideally, this is the position our team should strive to be in every game since we rarely get far enough ahead to rotate the bench guys to build experienced depth. However this isn’t the case just yet and it looks like we’re still going full throttle.
As expected, we start off with another first down run for a few yards, but we quickly follow up with yet another shot play deep over the middle to McMillan. Unfortunately, he yet again drops the surefire touchdown with at least 2 yards of separation in what was a perfect deep shot call for the coverage. Yet another opportunity lost for a guy who is clearly a talented deep threat who simply needs to haul in his looks consistently. This pass puts Morris’ dropped production (passing stats that in my view he connected on but were either dropped or had a penalty negate) at a minimum of 136 yards and 1 TD if you ignore any yards after catch opportunities. That’s a staggering amount of production to leave on the field, but it goes to show that we’re a lot closer and more talented in the passing game than the stat sheet would make it seem.
Anyways, back to the game, we really didn’t have much success after the deep shot with a few tough snags by Jones to extend the drive only for the offense to stall out with a missed field goal try.
9th Series - Washington 37 - Arizona 6
Jacob Sirmon finally makes an appearance on this drive with the 2nd string OL and Richard Newton also taking the field. Sticking to the same conservative quick pass/quick run attack, Donovan certainly wanted to keep things straightforward for his back up QB, but Newton put a quick end to that with a backbreaking 54-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage. Now I don’t know how the rest of the fan base feels, but Newton is still my favorite back to cheer for. He might not be as well rounded as others on the roster, but as a pure runner he is absolutely electric to watch.
10th Series - Washington 44 - Arizona 13
Cam Davis now back in the game to grind out some yardage, as a couple of solid runs behind the back up OL and back up FB Javon Forward in a pair of outside zone lead runs. Surprisingly, for as big as our backup line is (especially OGs Nate Kalepo and Julius Buelow), our line moves pretty well laterally, and the outside zone runs seem fairly effective relative to our more downhill approach earlier.
In the end it doesn’t really matter as on 3rd & 5 Jacob Sirmon double clutches another all-hitches play, loses his passing lane, and scrambles for no gain.
11th Series - Washington 44 - Arizona 20
Rinse & repeat from the last possession. We come out with back—to-back solid runs from Cam Davis only for Sirmon to get the 3rd down pass play called and never pull the trigger. The more I see of Sirmon, the more I understand why Morris was the clear and obvious choice. He’s not the most talented, but he’s a playmaker and an operator.
12th Series - Washington 44 - Arizona 27
We’re just kneeling the clock out. Good game for the offense, but there’s still a bunch to work on.
- Arizona was a “feeler” game for the offense to open up and try to find what works. Some things are Donovan trying to work his scheme into the mix and get reps (downhill, I-formation run game). Others were trying to simply rep what we are already good at. We (read: the staff) just can’t get too spun up on the minutiae of opponent-specific game plans and adjustments.
- Offensive line was still gelling. Macro-level the OL is still only as strong as their weakest link and the iOL was not nearly as strong as some remember. Watt got man handled by a relatively average NT (Roy Lopez, 6-2, 318), Ale failed to consistently execute double teams with Watt, and Bainivalu was kinda average overall (great talent, inconsistent). We either have to change up our starting line to make our run game work, or we gotta tailor our run game to our best linemen. I’ll take the later. The silver lining here is that we had a pretty good outing when it comes to pass protection.
- There was a huge number of drops in critical moments (back to back drops kill drives, and our first punt of the second half was on a drive where McMillan should’ve had a TD). The positive spin is that McMillan got open a number of times deep and Morris found him relatively in stride on most. The fact that our receivers were getting separation deep is what we need to hold out hope for next season.
If you actually got to the end of this replay, kudos. Let me know your thoughts on our offense this game in the comments below.