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.
Before I get into observations etc., full honesty: Comprehensively, this was probably the worst defensive performance from UW in years. Situationally, unit-by-unit — there is pretty much no angle you can look where this isn’t the case.
Furthermore, even the offense’s original “meh” level of play for the first half-ish was nowhere near how bad the defense was. In fact on the re-watch I was pleasantly reminded that the Dawgs’ low score only came from a couple offensive stagnations which, unfortunately, made up a disproportionately high percentage of their possessions — because the defense, pardon my French, totally shit the bed.
In other words, I’d argue that the most crucial effect of the defense’s suckage wasn’t so much that Stanford scored a bunch as much as it was that it simply kept Washington’s offense from getting on the field. Obviously one tends to beget the other, but upon re-watch it feels to me like, had UW’s offense actually gotten a couple more chances — or even one more chance (which could’ve happened if the defense did their job better) — they would have been able to get out of this one with the win.
The Dawgs’ offense actually scored on all but two possessions and, in the second half, looked like the superior unit other than their last drive — which was the one time the defense put them in a good position and, unfortunately, they spent that good position being decidedly un-clutch. (This was primarily due to offensive line penalties. My eye’s not twitching, you’re twitching. Shut up.)
Anyways, here’s some more:
Observations, Etc. (which would also be a good name for an 80s new wave band)
First thing’s first: Third downs... not great.
Washington’s defense didn’t stop a third down conversion until 36 seconds left in the half. Which then Stanford just went for it on 4th down and converted anyway.
After that I kinda stopped counting, but considering Stanford’s first four possessions all went for touchdowns and they didn’t punt until there were fewer seconds in the third quarter than years passed in the 21st century... I’m pretty sure that’s not putting your team in a super hot position to win. But what do I know, really.
Furthermore, of the first three touchdowns, two came on a Stanford 3rd and goal.
Of course, saying “Oh Washington sucked on third down” doesn’t really tell you anything since, ya know, that doesn’t actually explain what they sucked at.
Honestly, it wasn’t anything complicated that troubled Washington’s defense — they were just mediocre in executing everything. This was present from the start of each play; the line was slower off the snap than Stanford, then subsequently they usually didn’t get good push. This was particularly true against the run. And, on the occasion when they did, it was all too often all too easy for Stanford’s running back to find a hole where a linebacker wasn’t — often because getting beaten and out-leveraged in blocks wasn’t just an issue on the line; the inside linebackers and safeties — even at times outside corners defending against the run — had a really rough time trying to disrupt Stanford’s downfield blocking.
The defense was slightly better against the pass (as they tend to be), but they still looked pretty flat there too. This was especially true in the middle of the field, where the safeties and inside linebackers looked to have poor anticipation of receiver routes from zone to zone. The end result was hefty chunks of space for Stanford quarterback Davis Mills to work with — and as we know, that’s the kind of scenario where he thrives.
Simply put, when it came to the air, Mills took what Washington gave him.
Normally that wouldn’t be that big of a deal. (Lookin’ at you, Mike Leach.) Against Stanford, however, it was simply because A) their offense still relied first and foremost on their ground game against our mediocre run defense, allowing “taking what Washington gives you through the air” to be all they really needed in the passing game and B) the Huskies’ tackling was worse in this game than we’d seen in a long time.
So, instead of UW conceding some short completions to Stanford but bodying the receiver immediately, each minor pass turned into just a little bit more for the Cardinal. The same was true in the run game; situations where we’re used to seeing Dawg defenders drop a ball-carrier immediately upon contact turned into a three, five, seven extra yards per play. They weren’t even super terrible. Rather they were just not those crisp, commanding tackles that both set the tone for a game and, more importantly, don’t concede more to an offense than the bare minimum.
In fact, upon re-watch I’d go so far as to say that, despite the defense’s consistent mediocrity across the board, they still could have not only won but won pretty decisively if not for “meh” tackling. Those yards after contact, besides just adding up in general, really kept Stanford’s offense on schedule and accordingly kept pressure off Mills. I mean the latter both literally and otherwise — Stanford was so rarely (never?) forced into passing downs, that A) Mills never was put in a position where there was a lot of responsibility on him and B) Washington’s edge rushers were never in positions where they could just full send it with no threat of the run.
With that in mind, it really makes sense that this was ZTF’s quietest game by far.
If the Dawgs could have kept Stanford even a bit behind schedule — even for just a couple drives — it’s reasonable to deduce they’re would’ve been some defensive butterfly effects that would have gone the Huskies’ way.
Unfortunately, they didn’t tackle well (or at least with superior leverage) so they couldn’t keep Stanford even a bit behind schedule, so this is all moot. But at least it’s a pretty simple foundational adjustment...?
Lastly, to give fair credit, there was a period of time in the end of the third quarter to beginning of the fourth quarter where the Husky defense actually looked alright. But that’s not the standard of a Montlake defense. It’s “exceptional” and it’s “always.” That is the backbone of Washington football victories. And is even a presence even in many Washington losses. (Hello, ASU 2017 and Cal 2018 and Cal 2019 and and and...)
Once Stanford knew they could just drag out their possessions, it pretty much turned into a game of keep-away from Washington’s offense. And if they happened to score — which they effectively did at will, albeit each time after a very drawn out and torturous process — then great!
Personally, I feel like the most frustrating part of this game (besides everything) was that despite the offense’s slow start and the defense’s constant general terribleness, they still could’ve won; the offense, once they got their shit together, kept them in it. Yet the one time the defense actually put them in a good position — scooping up the fumble and returning it to the 10 yard line — the offense just had to be as bad as the defense had been all day. Worse, even, maybe.
For reference, due to general defensive ineptitude, Washington’s offense started each of their first possessions on their own: 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, and 16. That meant touchdown drives of 75, 75, and 92, all in the second half (plus one field goal drive of 71) — and yet when they only had to go 10 yards for another seven points, they went backwards and settled for three.
In the end, I’m mostly just salty that Our
Benevolent Overlord Site Manager Max made me write a defensive redux on Stanford instead of Utah since it was pretty dang depressing. (Offensively, on the other hand, I actually came away from this jazzed about watching the passing game over the course of a real-life full season. That was not my memory from originally watching this game, so that was a nice little treat.) But I digress...
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.