That was my first reaction when it was painfully obvious that we were going to lose to Montana. Don’t get me wrong. Credit where credit is due. Montana played a good game, and they were the better team that night, and that’s what made it all the more painful.
Montana was the better team.
We may have been the more talented team, but we simply weren’t the better team. The problem now is where to go from here in what already feels like a lost season.
What to make of the Montana debacle
Its taken me a full 24 hours to really process what happened on Saturday and to gather my thoughts on what happened. I’d like to think that my record speaks for itself in that I’m all for patience and optimism, but there’s really sliver lining or positive spin on the events that transpired. Plain and simple, the staff and the players failed to a monumental degree. I’ll put most of the blame on the staff, they failed the players, but some of this still goes back to the team. It may be a controversial take, but I’ll circle back to that in a minute.
The performance by the staff was quite frankly unacceptable. If you’ve had the courage to check Husky Twitter since the end of the game, you’ll see that a lot of people have a similar view of the staff’s performance against Montana. Jimmy Lake owns a lot of blame because the buck stops with him. John Donovan drew the vast majority of the ire; right or wrong. However, there’s always far more nuance than social media would like to accept.
In my opinion, the defense played fine. Holding an opponent to 13 points should always be enough to win. Even with our talent advantage on defense, there are usually enough random and unpredictable plays where a strong defensive performance could still yield points (ex. offensive turnovers giving away scoring position, blown special teams, lucky bounces, etc.). By no means did our defense play up to our expectations, but their performance was closer to a “knock the rust off” type of game that could help identify areas that could be improved rather than a “sky is falling” performance. Our DL couldn’t shed blocks, our defensive front couldn’t contain Montana’s reasonably mobile QB, and our team tackling was surprisingly bad considering Lake put an emphasis on live tackling during camp. Pass coverage was decent, but our zone coverage was uncharacteristically porous and our LBs were targeted repeatedly in man coverage. These are all things that a well-coached and technically sound defense shouldn’t have to deal with, but they are also things that can be improved on over the course of the season. Of all things that I saw on Saturday, I somehow came away with most confidence in Bob Gregory’s defense...
Offense was a completely different story. Like I said before, I think that my record speaks for itself in that I have preached patience in Donovan, and have been fairly supportive of the direction and vision that Lake & Donovan have for our offense. However, today I find myself only supportive of the vision and not the coaches themselves. Similar to my views on recruiting, I will give the benefit of the doubt to whatever vision the staff has and judge the on-field results (basically the ends justify the means), as long as it seems like the staff is building towards that vision. Right now, its pretty clear that the staff is struggling to execute the play/vision, Donovan has reached the point where its hard for me to stay patient.
If Lake and Donovan want to run a run-centric, pro-style offense, then by all means. It might not be the flashiest offensive philosophy, but I am convinced that it can be a winning strategy. Wisconsin, Georgia, Iowa, Texas A&M, Stanford and Notre Dame have all found success with the pro-style approach, so there’s evidence that its a viable strategy. Its the execution that the staff has fumbled spectacularly. Donovan didn’t have answers for Montana’s pass rush or run defense , he didn’t have answers to Montana’s 2 or 3 safety coverages, and he didn’t have a coherent game plan. Our rushing attack that should’ve been firing on all cylinders relative to our depleted passing attack, but we kept things vanilla. These are all things that Donovan should take responsibility for. However, it should also be noted that having a Spread Option OC wouldn’t change the fact that we lost the LOS, and having a Air Raid OC wouldn’t have change the fact that our back up WRs weren’t prepared to take on an FCS opponent.
Looking more specifically on adjustments (or our lack there of), outside of a few jet sweeps, we didn’t test the edge. We didn’t run any of our tight bunch run package that we ran so well with last year. We didn’t take any of the deep shots that Donovan was so fond of last year. If passing was completely out of the question with our WRs out, what was stopping us from going all-in on our heavy package? On paper, we should’ve been able to load up with 22 or 13 personnel and bludgeon the Grizzlies in a close but eminently winnable game. Their only counter would’ve been to bail on their base 3-3-5 or pull everyone up into the box and try to match up with us 1-on-1 in the trenches. I don’t get why some are so fixated on the notion of spreading out the field if we are truly better on the line.... oh wait. That was exactly problem. If you can’t win the line of scrimmage, everything else is a moot point.
This is all to say that Donovan should own the blame for play calling, game planning, and lack of adjustments, but his efforts were far from the only problem that surfaced against Montana.
Lost in all the calls for Donovan to be fired was the fact that Scott Huff’s offensive line was the biggest disappointment of the night. Somehow this whole offseason, we allowed ourselves to be convinced that the offensive line would be our strongest position group, and yet they managed to be the group that I was most disappointed by. The fact that we had the opportunity to bring back every starter from 2020 and that Huff has recruited well over the last few years contributed to the vast overhyping of our OL. How on Earth we couldn’t just line up and bash the Montana front is entirely beyond me. I already know that a bunch of people will come back at me with “well Donovan kept running into loaded boxes” or “this wouldn’t be a problem if we just spread it out like all those other teams”. I get it. Those are the easy responses, but I don’t think that they were entirely true. Montana ran a fair number of plays with 2 or even 3 deep safeties, which mathematically prevents the defense from loading up the box to outnumber our fronts. We also played almost the entire game in 11 or 12 personnel, shotgun alignment, We simply couldn’t block the guys in front of us. It also doesn’t address the fact that we had no pass protection answer for their front 4 or their blitzes (neither of which were exotic or schematically different from what many of our conference opponents will run). Huff simply failed to prepare his unit, and the fact that he didn’t even make it through one game without benching 2/5 of 2020’s line further proves to me that our reasons for being optimistic about our OL were unfounded.
After Huff, Junior Adams is the coach that I’m most disappointed in. Similar to Huff, I think his reputation has been buoyed by his accomplishments on the recruiting trail rather than his prowess as a developer of talent. Circumstances were tough on him this week with the top half of his receiving corps missing most if not all of the Montana game, but his inability to ready his whole position to step up was tremendously disappointing to me. Taj Davis, Giles Jackson, and Sawyer Racanelli did not do Dylan Morris any favors with drops, lack of separation, and lack of zone awareness. I’d also be okay with people pointing to this weekend as a failure to properly stock the WR room with the necessary depth of talent. This was probably a worst case scenario to have McMillan, Odunze, Bynum, and Polk all out, but it does fall on Adams to manage his position and keep enough talent to weather these types of circumstances.
Michigan week... oh joy...
A year ago I would’ve been pumped about Michigan week. I thought that we had a great shot at beating them last year, and up until this week, I thought we could’ve beaten them at the Big House. Time has passed, and now I’m genuinely concerned that we might get blown out by them. The silver lining here is that both Montana and Michigan are non-conference games, so our supposed goal of Pac-12 Championships and Rose Bowl berths is technically still in play. While I doubt that those are realistic goals now, stranger things have happened.
To go back to the question of “where to go from here”, I really don’t know. My gut says that we have gotten the point where a change has to be made somewhere. Whether that’s relieving Donovan of his play calling duties, shuffling up the starting lineup, or some other move, I don’t know. I don’t think we have anyone on the staff who is prepared to take over play calling and could provide a potential upgrade, so canning Donovan mid-season probably isn’t the right move. I also don’t know if we have anyone else on the depth chart who should be seeing more playing time. There were calls to play Huard, but I doubt that he’d be an upgrade over Morris at this point considering that many of the factors that contributed to Morris’ poor performance (drops, no separation from WRs, poor protection) don’t get solved by playing Huard. The best we might be able to hope for is that the OL finds its footing, the return of Bynum, Odunze, McMillan, and Polk provide a shot in the arm for the passing attack, and Morris settles down after getting rattled by the pass rush.
We can only hope for competitive play and competent coaching at this point...