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2020 Washington Defensive Rewind: Arizona gets pwn’d

Poor Grant Gunnell.

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NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

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 to the defense’s bone-crushing performance against Arizona.

Heading into this matchup after narrowly escaping OSU their opening weekend before, it was the offense, not the defense, who fans were most anxious to revisit again. What we ended up getting was, politely, an absolute smackdown until the Dawgs put in the twos, threes, and even fours, when Arizona’s offense was able to restore just a smidgeon of dignity to end the game. “Smidgeon” being the keyword.

With the Dawgs starting with the ball, we all mentally prepared to see the defense for the first time after the offense stalled out around their own 35 yard line.

Instead, Jimmy Lake went full mad lad, faked the punt, and got a sweet sweet first down with Jackson Sirmon lumbering ahead. Then the offense scored, and we were off.

Then Arizona went three-and-out, thanks to a half-decent run defense, blanketing pass coverage, and front four pressure.

Then the offense extended the lead to 10, and then the defense built on their previous three-and-out by forcing Arizona through another three-and-out that ended in a strip sack from Eddie Ulofoshio recovered by Josiah Bronson. Oh, and then the Dawgs’ offense scored again. So that was nice.

Down 17-0, surely this was when we might see Washington’s defense get a bit too comfortable and take their foot off the gas pedal, right?

Right! So long as “right” just means “Well, Arizona finally got a first down.”

The next play saw five star true freshman Sav’ell Smalls get his first tackle for loss. The play after that, he again stopped the run right at the line of scrimmage. And, to cap it all of, ZTF sacked Grant Gunnell, who at this point we were starting to feel a bit bad for. For those of us keeping track, that meant Washington currently had more TDs than Arizona had first downs. Football analysts and people who get paid a lot of money to talk on ESPN refer to this as “not very good for Arizona.” Unfortunately, I am not paid a lot of money to talk on ESPN so I can’t confirm that, but I’ll take their word for it.

By the end of the first quarter with the Huskies up 17-0, the stats were these:

Rush Yards:

Washington — 26, Arizona — 4

Pass Yards:

Washington — 129, Arizona — 21

First Downs:

Washington — 7, Arizona — 1

So, yeah, the Dawgs’ defense was feeling pretty good. But, really, a dominant first quarter doesn’t necessarily mean things will stay that way...

Anyways then Washington’s offense drove down the field and ran it into the end zone immediately.

Almost to halftime, Arizona, for what it’s worth, was able to get into Washington territory for the first time all game thanks to two Washington penalties in a row on the same fourth down. Anyhoo, then they were promptly three-and-outed again.

By the end of the half, Washington had held Arizona to 45 total yards.

Then Arizona came out with the ball in the second half. “Ooh, I should sack him,” said ZTF re: Grant Gunnell. So he did that. “Oh, that looks like fun. I would also like to sack him,” said Ryan Bowman one play later. So he also did that.

Okay, now I’m gonna stop recapping the rest of the game that was pretty much just this happening over and over and over and over, and over and over and over again.

There were, however, some observations to be had from when the Dawgs finally had mercy on Arizona and threw in the depths of the reserves.

So, presenting:

Some Observations To Be Had From When The Dawgs Finally Had Mercy On Arizona And Threw In The Depths Of The Reserves

  • The distinguishing difference between the starters/starter-adjacent rotational players and the threes and fours: When UW’s backups came in, the defense didn’t all the sudden become a sieve or give up huge plays all the time, but the starters blanketed passing lanes and anticipated receivers’ places in their zones much more effortlessly. Not only that, but this allowed them to make the quick, definitive tackle when Gunnell made a short-to-mid completion. Subsequently, UW’s garbage time players just consistently gave up four, five, six yard plays, plus often a couple extra yards on plays where the starters would’ve laid an immediate hit. Similarly, tackling consistency just in general was a drop off.

  • Julius Irvin was in coverage on two receivers when they scored, but honestly it was less his fault and more just two great throws from Grant Gunnell. The first one was a fade where he could’ve been a biiiit tighter, but really he was in a better position than you see from defensive backs most of the time; the second he was similarly in a pretty alright position but reacted too slowly to play the ball on a throw over the top. Overall, however, despite being the face of 14 of Arizona’s 28 points, it made me feel pretty good about him if his role significantly increases in 2021.

  • Kyler Gordon, on the other hand, actually got beat somewhat on a 20-ish yard pass. Not super worried about that, but I do love the irony of Irvin getting scored on twice despite playing it pretty well while Gordon actually screwed up a bit on this one.

  • Cooper McDonald had a nice pass bat-down at the line of scrimmage, which was fun to see. Definitely didn’t expect to notice him on the field at all as a true freshman, much less on the edge instead of as an inside linebacker, but he was a pleasant surprise. This play in particular, he got more push than you expect from a true freshman without imposing size, then did an excellent job anticipating Gunnell’s throw and got himself all sorts of in the way.

Parting Thoughts

  • Up front, Washington didn’t do anything very fancy — there were some stunts, but generally not a whole lot of blitzing or novelty. In that regard the front four kind of reminded me of their performance against WSU in Luke Falk’s last Apple Cup, albeit nowhere near that dominant (nor generating that much pressure with only three pass rushers). Complementing that, like I alluded to above about backups that came in in garbage time, the back seven did a lot of the work simply not allowing Arizona receivers to find a soft spot in the zone or, if they did, immediately finishing a tackle on them.

  • Along with that, per usual we mostly saw 2-4-5, a bit of 3-3-5, and I think I saw some dime there occasionally but, full disclosure, my eyes are very, very bad. This isn’t me making an excuse, I mean literally, my optometrist — who’s probably reading this right now, hi Paul! — has stated “Your eyes are so bad they can’t be measured.”

  • Trent McDuffie, for as good in coverage as he is, might be even better as a tackler. On the same note, We’re gonna miss Elijah Molden who just never missed.

  • My memory before rewatching was that this was the game where we started going “Oh ZTF is like, for real for real.” And don’t get me wrong, it still felt like that watching again, and the whole pass rush (including Eddie Ulofoshio when he got sent through a gap occasionally) decisively won that trench battle, but it didn’t quite live up to my memory of 2017-Apple-Cup level dominance. That probably says more about my memory than anything else, though; ZTF was just so much fun to watch. Except...

  • ...poor Grant Gunnell. By the second half he just looked like he wanted to go home, and I don’t blame him.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.