Another tough week. Not a lot to say about that.
I’m floating somewhere between frustrated and dejected, and its a foreign feeling to many Husky faithful in the years since the Willingham years. Even if we hadn’t had national or even conference level success during every season over the near decade and a half since those dark years, every season had a glimmer of hope. There was always something to compete for or build towards at the end of every year. If it wasn’t competing for a playoff spot or NY6 bowl, then it was competing for the conference title and a Rose Bowl berth. If it wasn’t aiming for a conference title, then it was rebuilding the roster and laying the foundation for future success with promising young players. There was always something. This year is different.
The Montana debacle had already thrown a wet blanket on the trip to Ann Arbor, one that many had circled on the calendar for years, but I had held out hope that it was an aberration, even if it was overly optimistic and wishful thinking. However, with two nationally recognized embarrassments, even I’m unsure what’s left to look forward to.
This was the second poor performance in a row from John Donovan’s offense; plain & simple. Most frustratingly, it didn’t look like the staff had any adjustments to the game plan that so spectacularly failed them the week before. Perhaps they were banking on the return of Terrell Bynum and Jalen McMillan to spark an offensive resurgence, but even that might be giving them too much of a pass (no pun intended). With such an anemic rushing attack against the Griz, you’d think that the staff would’ve tried different formations and play calls to spark the rushing attack that’s supposed to be the foundation of this offense. What ever happened to “run the damn ball”? Obviously 50 rushing yards isn’t what Jimmy Lake had in mind.
Michigan felt comfortable enough to lean into the simple “stack the box” approach against our offense, and with very few early down passes, the results were expectedly poor. The key to the run game is numbers and execution of blocks. If you have more blockers than defenders in the box, then you will usually be able to run the ball effectively. That’s simple football 101 that most fans already know. How you gain the numbers advantage against the defense is the harder part.
We continued to try inside zone plays and split zone plays to little effect against a similarly talented opponent that was daring us to pass. Man & gap run schemes use pulling linemen to create numbers advantages at the point of attack and create new gaps that a static defense isn’t aligned for. However, zone blocking schemes generally dictate who will be left unblocked, and it is up to the scheme and the non-blocking players to account for the unblocked defender. Option teams utilize the option to account for the unblocked player. Shanahan offenses in the NFL lean heavily on the threat of boot action to keep the backside edge player honest in their contain responsibilities. McVay offenses incorporated the jet sweep as another counter that forces backside defenders to stay honest and not chase down the play as the unblocked man. Finally, there is the split zone concept that borrows from man/gap plays such as the trap, power, and the wham. We tried pretty much all of these constraints to the zone run except for the option with no luck. Zone schemes are hard to master, and even Kyle Shanahan needed over a full year to install his offense, so I don’t think its quite time to abandon these schemes. I just think we need to master bits and pieces before we try throwing the kitchen sink at our run game problems with all of our answers half-baked.
I’ll dive into this more this week in film study.
On the other side of the ball, we faced a similarly bleak reality. After multiple years of the staff paying lip service to refocused efforts “stopping the run” on defense, it finally looked like Bob Gregory was making clear changes to the defense to address the long standing concerns. We saw expanded use of 3 DL personnel packages against heavy offensive personnel, we focused on more stacked boxes in run situations, and we stacked the LOS to match gaps as best possible. However it was all for naught against Michigan as we gave up an appalling 343 yards on the ground when it was obvious that that’s what the Wolverines wanted to do all night.
343 rushing yards. Nearly 7x as many rushing yards as our own offense produced.
Taking a closer look, there are a few mitigating circumstances that help a little. Our pass defense smothered Michigan to the tune of only 44 passing yards on 15 attempts. Our offense’ ineptitude afforded the Wolverines 11 possessions despite both teams wanting to kill the clock (largely due to 5 3 & outs in the first half). The Wolverines had a 10 minute time of possession advantage on us. And finally, our defense kept us in the game through three quarters of the game with no help from the offense. The overall performance was still particularly concerning given how badly we performed against the run, but you almost have to feel sorry for this unit carrying such a heavy burden.
There’s no use pitying the defense though as conference play is upcoming and there are more and more teams that are looking dangerous on the ground. The tricky part is that all of the obvious quick fixes for our run game have been used up. At this point, our DL just need to get off their blocks better, our LBs need to flow and tackle more aggressively, and our DBs need to learn what an open field tackle is... Like seriously, our safeties probably cost us 2 scores because they didn’t know how to tackle in space. These aren’t things that can be fixed midseason unless we have guys on our bench who can perform any better. If those guys exist, then why aren’t they playing?
Stopping the Bleeding
Looking ahead to this coming week’s opponent, the Arkansas State Red Wolves, we will have a dynamic offense to contend with. At this point, we can’t take any opponent for granted, but the positive outlook here is that we may finally have a team that we match up well against. The Red Wolves are powered by a dynamic passing attack that dropped 40 points on Central Arkansas to open the season and 50 points on G5 power Memphis last week. In what seems to be a 2-QB system, the Red Wolves have managed to produce 2 400+ yard passers in 2 weeks with over 900 yards passing overall. This will be a tough test for our largely unchallenged passing defense, but there’s at least a hope that we won’t get bulldozed on the ground this week.
On offense, we’ll be facing a somewhat more vulnerable defense that yielded 263 rushing yards to Memphis. Again, we can’t take anything for granted, but there’s hope that we can get back on track. There should be more margin for error against Arkansas State for us to experiment with new plays and game plan strategies (not that we have much riding on this game other than pride at this point). Coming out of the gates attacking deep in the passing game and orchestrating a more focused run game that doesn’t involve us running into the strength of a defense would be a great start. Also, playing a clean game should be a focus of the coaching staff this week. 2 totally unnecessary unsportsmanlike penalties, a number of procedural penalties, and a bunch of holding calls were uncharacteristically sloppy. If we couldn’t stay focused for our marquee non-conference opponent, then I don’t even want to think how bad we might look once we have less and less to compete for.
If we can’t right the ship to avoid 0-3, then it’ll be progressively tougher for members of the staff to keep their jobs. To be honest, I wouldn’t even want mine if we head into conference play winless... (kidding @Max... kinda).