1. Ready, Play, Action!
After Washington’s disastrous offensive performances in the first two games it was clear that something had to give. True, the Huskies had suffered serious injuries at the receiver position but the scheme didn’t appear to be remotely close to a modern offense. Many scoffed when Jimmy Lake cited last year’s offense as a sign that the Huskies were capable of producing but there’s no question that the team in 2020’s 4 game small sample at least showed they could be competent despite a pair of first half struggles.
We finally got to see pieces of a new approach against Arkansas State. It’s frustrating that the changes came in week 3 rather than week 2 and it’s tough to know how much credit to ascribe to Arkansas State’s terrible defense. But there were legitimate changes in the game plan regardless of the opponent’s defensive scheme.
Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Washington ran play action on 18 out of 43 (42.8%) Dylan Morris dropbacks against Arkansas State. The Huskies had 18 play action attempts combined against Montana and Michigan in 92 total dropbacks (19.5%). Those of you capable of doing basic mental math will note that’s more than double what they did previously.
And play action helps a quarterback (duh). So far this season Morris is 21/34 (61.7%) with 2 TDs and 1 INT averaging 8.4 yards per attempt when passing off of play action. Those totals are 49/88 (55.6%) with 2 TDs and 4 INTs averaging 6.8 YPA when not using play action. It’s not just that they were in play action but also the type of play action. Morris ran 11 RPOs on Saturday as most of their play action snaps came out of the shotgun where Morris didn’t have to turn his back to the defense. If that seemed new to you it’s because they had run 5 total RPOs in the previous 6 games of the John Donovan era.
Clearly having both Jalen McMillan and Terrell Bynum fully healthy made a big difference. As did playing against an Arkansas State defense that refused to play with a deep safety and challenged Washington to beat them over the top. However, the scheme set the players up for success and wouldn’t you know it they actually succeeded.
2. (Not) Under Pressure
I’m sure some of you out there would argue that this isn’t exactly new and you’re right. Especially since I had a similar item in my week 1 recap. I’m officially willing to declare though that this Husky team is not going to be able to get to the quarterback with any kind of reliability without getting creative with their pressure and blitz packages.
Washington got 3 sacks against Arkansas State on 52 combined dropbacks. That was more pass attempts than the Husky defense saw in their first 2 games combined so there hasn’t been another chance for this team to really tee off on the quarterback. However the 3 sacks today came from: Faatui Tuitele, Jacobe Covington, and Brendan Radley-Hiles. Tuitele is the only member of front 7 to get involved and that sack came about 5 seconds into the play well outside the pocket so it wasn’t exactly immediate pressure (although he made it count getting a forced fumble which was picked up and run back for a TD by Bralen Trice).
I looked at the last several seasons for Washington and the regular contributors along their front 4 by their pressure as well as hit/sack rates per Pro Football Focus. Surprisingly, UW’s pressure percentage this season is actually listed as higher than it was in 2020 at 9.86% to 9.61% but lower than in 2019 (10.15%). However, it makes sense that their percentage of pass rushes with either a sack or a QB hit is the lowest of the 3 years at 2.03% compared to 3.2% and 2.55% in 2020 and 2019 respectively.
The pressure rate being comparable despite the lack of results suggests that we could start seeing some regression to the mean resulting in more hits. It could also be that this team just doesn’t have the kind of pass rushers capable of beating their guy so soundly that they are able to get to the QB in a reasonable amount of time rather than just being near the QB. It’s possible to get a pressure by getting close but if the opposing OL is still between you and the QB the entire time it isn’t going to accomplish much unless the QB is especially skittish. As we’re now 25% of the way through the regular season we also can’t forget about the possibility of ZTF coming back at some point this season which would give a major boost to the pass rush.
3. Veteran Saavy
The Washington running game wasn’t just stuck in neutral during its first 2 games but it seemed that someone had left the headlights on overnight and the battery was 100% dead. The offensive line was getting absolutely no push and even when they did create a hole, the combination of Richard Newton and Cameron Davis weren’t exactly accomplishing very much with what they got. Considering the success that Sean McGrew has had whenever he’s been on the field for Washington during his career there were rightly a lot of questions about how he might do if inserted into the lineup.
It turns out the answer was about as well as we all would’ve thought. McGrew finished the game with 31 yards rushing and 2 TDs on 6 carries. In particular his first TD run had a moment where 2 Arkansas State defenders looked like they had a real shot to stop him for little to no gain before a nifty jump cut move made them both miss and left him a free path to the end zone.
McGrew wasn’t the only old fogey to get in on the action. Fellow senior Kamari Pleasant also saw his first game action of the season and finished with 48 yards on 8 carries plus one reception for 6 yards. Put it all together and Pro Football Focus had McGrew and Pleasant as their 2nd and 3rd highest graded Huskies on offense for the game and pretty clearly the top 2 running backs.
It’s not quite as simple as hand over the reigns back to the seniors and the running game is suddenly fixed. True, Arkansas State dared Washington to beat them over the top to play the run but this still wasn’t exactly a dominant effort by the offensive line. Against Michigan the running backs were hit at or behind the line on almost half the carries. Even if McGrew or Pleasant were consistently able to make the first guy miss (not something they’ve always done) they still would’ve had terrible numbers in Ann Arbor. On Saturday the running backs combined to average 5.1 yards per carry. The McGrew/Pleasant combo finished with the exact same number of yards as Newton/Davis on 3 fewer carries (5.64 vs. 4.64 ypc). Definitely better but not exactly a relatively dominant showing. None of the backs had a rush longer than 18 yards still (and that was Newton).
Giving all of the carries to McGrew and Pleasant probably isn’t going to be the long-term answer. However, after Arkansas State there isn’t really a good reason for the coaching staff to not give them a shot if Newton comes out of the gates struggling against Cal next week.