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 diving deep on the offensive performance in the season opener against Oregon State.
Given everything that led up to the game, it would be understandable for UW’s offense to come out somewhat uneven. Since the last time the Huskies took the field, their head coach unexpectedly stepped down and handed the program over to Jimmy Lake, who had to bring in a new offensive coordinator. Lake and new OC Jon Donovan had to break in Dylan Morris as a new starting QB. The season opener against Michigan was rescheduled (for what ended up being 2028). Even the week one game against Cal was canceled due to Covid. By the time UW took the field against Oregon State, the program had gone through more change in one offseason than it did during Petersen’s entire tenure.
Against that backdrop, the Huskies came out very conservatively in virtually every way possible. Kamari Pleasant, the dependable choice in the RB room, started in the backfield. The Dawgs generally lined up with two TEs or a TE and a FB/H-Back on the field. On the first third-and-short, they ran up the middle with a FB dive. When Washington did throw, it was either play-action or a quick pass into the flat. When Morris finally tried a deeper pass to a WR (Terrell Bynum), he faced a blitz and delivered the ball a little behind the receiver. It would’ve been great if that miscue led to a punt, but the ensuing snap was the catastrophic high snap that started the season on a wildly depressing note.
The next drive started like the first. The Dawgs had two TEs and threw out of play action, then ran out of a classic I-formation. On third-and-five, UW put four receivers on the field (albeit in a closely bunched formation) and got a pass interference flag on a deep ball to the departed Puka Nacua. With Sean McGrew in the backfield, Washington strung together several more explosive running plays, capped by a 21-yard touchdown.
After forcing a punt, UW started with more of the same. Two TE formations opened up room for McGrew to break two big runs. McGrew gave way to the more powerful Richard Newton, who kept moving the chains. On third and five in the red zone, Morris tried a fade to Ty Jones- a low percentage throw that didn’t connect. Still behind, the steady offense, the Dawgs kicked a FG and took a 10-7 lead.
The Dawgs forced a turnover in OSU territory and started with a quick throw to Bynum and a pitch to McGrew, which was at least slightly more adventurous play-calling. Washington came back behind two TEs and a FB and Pleasant ran through a wide open hole for a TD.
Following an OSU TD, Washington opened the subsequent drive with another deep attempt to Bynum over the middle that flew well over his head. They failed to convert the third down to Nacua with a slightly late ball on a crossing route. The patterns didn’t change for the rest of the first half. The Dawgs kept big personnel on the field and bunched receivers close to the formation when there was more than one in the offense. With the ball inside the five, UW used Richard Newton and Morris as a battering ram on four straight snaps for another TD that gave UW a 24-21 lead at the half.
The first half offense was stodgy and the second have somehow slowed down even more. Morris completed a nice play-action pass to Jones early in the half. Cam Davis made a cameo in the backfield. The offense chipped away at the Beaver defense with interior runs and short, quick passes. Everything was a high-percentage play call. It’s hard to say whether the conservatism was the result of protecting a lead in game one for coach and QB, an outgrowth of the poor performance on earlier deep throws, or some combination of other factors. In any case, the riskiest play calls the Dawgs were willing to try by the third quarter was an end-around to Jalen McMillan. The red zone execution left something to be desired. A play-action throw to Rome Odunze probably should have been caught for a TD, but the drop led to a failed FG attempt after 17 plays and almost eight minutes of the field.
The Beavers had their own long drive stall out in the red zone. Morris made his biggest completion of the half (again, on play-action) when a defender dove in front of Bynum and gave him a wide open field to run into. The teams traded punts and the Dawgs still led by three. Washington got the ball back with about nine minutes to play and ran the ball on 15 consecutive snaps. Again, Washington got inside the ten and had to settle for a FG attempt, although this one was successful. OSU threw an interception to Asa Turner to ice the game for UW, but it certainly wasn’t because the offense pulled away.
On second viewing, this game felt more troubling than when I originally watched it. The early offense was conservative, but functional. As the game continued, it became increasingly one-dimensional. It would be hard to watch the fourth quarter and not feel like the play calls were designed to avoid losing rather than to put the game away.
Do those problems have any long-term effect? The head coach, OC, and QB only play their first game once, so the specific type of pressure will never be replicated. Morris looked solid on everything but the longest throws and could have had better stats if his receivers held onto more passes. The more worrying implication is that the play-calling went into a turtle shell at the first sign of adversity. As we will see from future entries in this series, the offense liberalized marginally as the season progressed. Nonetheless, Washington let Oregon State stay in this game that they should have put away decisively. If a team does that often enough, they will eventually lose games they should win, which is exactly what the coaching staff must avoid.