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Mailbag: “The Revenant” Edition

In which I seemingly answer whether every member of the team and coaching staff should be benched or fired

Montana v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Who, of our presumed 2-3 deep rotation at all positions did not play, and why? -Eegoar with a bag over my head

Obviously there are more emotionally charged questions to come but let’s start off with something a little more pleasant to ease ourselves into it. According to PFF there were 23 Huskies to play at least 3 defensive snaps and 17 to take at least 3 offensive snaps. Looking at the 2-deep released at the beginning of the week there are a few obvious folks who didn’t play. Starting receivers Terrell Bynum and Rome Odunze were injured and unavailable. That’s an easy explanation.

The running back position was a bit of a surprise after there was a clear 4-man rotation last season at the position and Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant were listed as OR for the 3rd RB spot. Instead the coaching staff decided to just roll with Richard Newton (56 snaps) and Cam Davis (20 snaps) for the entire game. It doesn’t match the distribution of carries pattern we saw last season but if you listened to the coaching staff they hinted this might happen. It sounds like they want to give Newton and Davis every opportunity to assert themselves rather than divide things up 4 ways. We’ll see if that changes should the running game continue to struggle.

On the offensive line it certainly appeared that RG Henry Bainivalu got benched in favor of Nate Kalepo about 34 of the way through the game. Kalepo was on the 2-deeps but if you had told me on Friday that we played 6 OL during the game I would have thought someone got injured or we went with a jumbo package, not that someone would get benched.

4 of the 5 tight ends on the 2-deeps got into the game with Quentin Moore the lone exception. Cade Otton played every snap as expected but Devin Culp playing 2/3rd of the offensive snaps (50 total) compared to a combined 20 from Jack Westover and Mark Redman wasn’t a foregone conclusion. It certainly appears that with Culp and Otton being viewed as the 2 primary pass catching options at the TE position that the coaching staff decided to leave them both in given the depleted depth at WR.

There was a lot more rotation going on along the defense. Almost none of that happened at the cornerback spots since we didn’t see any of 2nd stringers Jacobe Covington and Mishael Powell. Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon played all but 1 snap combined. Inside linebacker with the depth issues saw only MJ Tafisi get into the game among the backups. No time for Daniel Heimuli (still presumably recovering from injury) or Carson Bruener.

There was plenty of intrigue at the safety spots coming in and those questions didn’t really get answered. Kamren Fabiculanan and Julius Irvin started the game as they were projected to from the depth chart but Cam Williams ended up out-snapping Irvin 33 to 27. Alex Cook also saw 15 snaps while Asa Turner got 3 so I think there’s still a good chance that we see those jobs switch hands throughout the season. Dominique Hampton didn’t appear in the game which leads me to think he was unavailable rather than that the coaching staff chose not to play him.

There was a tremendous amount of shuffling going on at the defensive line and outside linebacker spots as well which was expected. We saw between 7 and 9 snaps each from freshmen Voi Tunuufi, Kuao Peihopa, and Jordan Lolohea. If UW had been up 21 points in the 4th quarter I would have predicted that but I didn’t think they’d get time in a game that was so in doubt the entire time. I’m guessing we don’t see as much of that against Michigan while the game is close and that the coaching staff had planned to get them in the game expecting a different result and kept up with that plan since the defense was playing well overall.

At the OLB spot Cooper McDonald did in fact start opposite Ryan Bowman but Sav’ell Smalls, Bralen Trice, and Jeremiah Martin all played between 15 and 17 snaps. That competition for who is truly the 3rd OLB in the rotation clearly hasn’t been decided yet.

I’m not an X’s and O’s guy, but after watching the Montana game, I would like to know what changed after that successful first drive? It’s like the team just called it a day and went home. Did Montana adjust their scheme quickly? Did our offense just have a bunch of scripted plays to start, then the play calling just didn’t adjust to what Montana did? Thanks. -TropicalDawg

I was out of town this weekend and so haven’t gotten the chance to re-watch the game. And even if I was in town I’m frankly not sure I would be able to go through that without a little more distance. Because of that I can’t speak with quite as much authority about the X’s and O’s that I might otherwise (and I don’t even pretend to be much of an authority to start with).

The issues for me were ultimately 2-fold. The first is that the Huskies with their depleted receiving corps weren’t able to win 1v1 matchups across the field. Early on it looked like Montana was giving Washington a bit of a cushion which allowed for some easy completions and helped keep Montana off balance.

Quickly though Montana was able to identify that they didn’t need to worry much about giving a tremendous amount of help to their corners. That allowed them to devote the majority of their resources to attacking the line of scrimmage. And unfortunately neither the players nor the coaches handled that very well.

The offensive line wasn’t able to decisively win at the point of attack which meant that when the Huskies threw the ball they were under pressure. And without guys winning matchups outside it meant that Morris was throwing into tight windows and was often off balance which affected his accuracy. When the Huskies tried to run the ball they were met at or behind the line of scrimmage and didn’t do much in the way of breaking tackles. Per Sports Info Solutions Richard Newton was hit at the line on 9 of his 17 rushing attempts and was stuffed on 4 of them.

Finally, the play calling didn’t help any of them. The run play design was bland and un-imaginitive. Washington had 21 carries by their running backs and 16 of them came between the tackles and averaged barely over 3 yards per carry. Montana threw bodies at the center of the line all night either pre-snap or at the snap because they knew we were going to run it right there or if we threw it they were getting through to pressure Morris. Last season Washington had some really nice toss plays which could’ve negated the focus on the box if we insisted on running. Outside of a Giles Jackson fly sweep we literally ran nothing to the outside. It’s fair to think it would’ve been a great time to dust off Sean McGrew.

We also didn’t do anything to try to negate Montana’s relentless pressure on 1st down. How about a legitimate freaking screen pass?!? That’s kind of offensive football 101 when the other team is being overaggressive. Without looking at the all-22 version I can’t say whether Morris didn’t have hot route options or if they simply weren’t getting open and so he wasn’t hitting them. There also wasn’t any kind of pre-snap motion going on to try to fool Montana or try to give Morris clues about what was coming. Per Sports Info Solutions no team in the country ran more pass plays without any pre-snap motion than Washington last weekend. Only 2 of the 49 dropbacks featured motion. So yeah, the offensive scheme wasn’t doing them any favors.

Before the game we predicted the play calling would probably be a little stale because they’d want to save things for Michigan. But after scoring 7 points at the end of the 3rd quarter this needed to become a kitchen sink game and instead there just weren’t any adjustments being made.

(we have now entered the should we bench/fire everyone portion of the mailbag)

What lead to the hiring of Donovan as OC? He seemed like he was a bad out of left field hire when it was made, and now 5 games in, the offense is just plan bad. -Kdog

By all accounts Jimmy Lake relied upon the contacts he had within the NFL to help identify Donovan who was obviously with Jacksonville at the time. At that point there was clearly a part of the sales pitch that Jimmy agreed with for him to pull the trigger. The “pro-style, multiple” attack sounds fine in theory and there are ways to be successful with it. But modern college football is designed to make it easy to play offense. It’s malpractice these days to not lean into it and take the advantages the rules are giving in the name of traditionalist football. I certainly hope that if Lake is making any future personnel decisions that he doesn’t listen to the people that suggested he had to interview Donovan.

When does Jimmy try to save himself by firing JohnDon? The decision to hire the fired former OC from Penn State who was mediocre at Vandy and who couldn’t ascend higher than the Assistant RB coach for the Jaguars was the biggest mistake Jimmy made. It doomed his tenure before he even got started. Everyone not wearing hugely tinted purple blinders saw that. Who loses their job first: Cohen, Jimmy or JohnDon? -We lost to Montana

There’s an easy way to tell who would lose their job first. Jen Cohen is in charge of hiring/firing Jimmy Lake. Jimmy Lake is in charge of hiring/firing John Donovan. There shouldn’t really be much other information you need to figure things out.

I legitimately can’t think of any scenario where John Donovan outlasts Jimmy Lake with the Huskies. If there is a point where Lake is fired then it’s virtually assured that Donovan would go out the door along with him. A Washington team that necessitates a firing most certainly does not have an offense good enough to make a new head coach want to keep on an offensive coordinator they didn’t choose for themselves. And if it was Jen Cohen who is let go by the board of regents first then it means the new AD hire is almost certainly going to make a change in the football program as well. Donovan is tied to Lake and Lake is tied to Cohen. If either Lake or Cohen goes then everyone downstream will end up going as well whether instantly or as soon as feasible.

Should UW make a QB change? - Mountain Man

I wouldn’t yet if I were Lake. Every indication from the team, the media, and the fans who attended the open practices was that Morris was by far the best of the QB options coming into this season. Morris played by far the worst game of his career. Absolutely. No one is questioning that.

But he also received terrible pass protection and was without his top-4 receivers after the first drive. Probably fewer than 20% of his throws in camp this August went to any of the guys who actually played WR on Saturday. I think it would be extremely difficult to justify to the locker room benching Morris right now without first making other changes related to scheme or letting the WR room get a little healthier.

And if you did decide to make a change right now you are choosing between Patrick O’Brien who missed the last several weeks of fall camp and an 18-year old true freshman making his college debut in front on 100,000 in the Big House. And it’s not like it’s a package deal that inserting Huard would allow you to have Bynum and Odunze healthy. If neither is available for Michigan and I thought a change would be necessary I would much rather choose to let Morris take his lumps and then let the next guy get their first start at home against Arkansas State with a better chance at getting Bynum or Odunze back.

The worst case scenario is benching Morris then having the backup look even worse the next game and flip flopping the rest of the year having undermined your starter (see: Washington State and Stanford).

Are you not entertained? -Oyster fart

No, not particularly. Ask better questions.

When Michigan lost to Appalachian State in 2007, 34 to 32, they were ranked as the #5 team in the nation. They followed that up with a loss to Oregon by a score of 39 to 7. They finished the season at 9 and 4, with a 41 to 35 victory over Florida in the Capital One Bowl. Would a similar result for this season for the Huskies be enough to make Jimmy Lake a revenant coach?

I think that would most likely qualify as becoming a revenant coach assuming you mean that he survives the Grizzly bear mauling and makes it back out of the wilderness. In the Washington version of this hypothetical let’s say they lose to Michigan 39-7 this upcoming week (same score as Michigan/Oregon above) and then beat Arkansas State and pull together a 7-2 conference record to finish 9-4. How could this possibly happen after what we just witnessed?

Well I can think of a couple ways. First of all let’s say the team manages to get healthy particularly at the WR position. Jimmy Lake said that Bynum, Odunze, and McMillan are all week-to-week. I’m personally interpreting that as they won’t get back this week but if 2 of them come back for week 3 and all of them are back for the start of Pac-12 play it would be a tremendous boost for the offense. Having guys capable of decisively winning 1v1 matchups and providing easy open looks for Morris is going to be a big part of any potential turnaround even if the scheme naturally handicaps him.

There’s also the fact that the Pac-12 (and particularly the North) might kind of suck this year. The Pac-12 North went 0-6 against the spread in week 1. UCLA looks like they might live up to the hype so let’s say (since UW misses USC and Utah) that the Bruins plus Oregon and ASU are the 3 toughest teams we play in conference. All 3 of them are at home so even if Washington ends up an underdog in all of them it gives them a much better chance at pulling off an upset. It wouldn’t shock anyone at this point if all of UW’s road opponents (Cal, Stanford, Wazzu, and Colorado) fail to make bowl eligibility given their early showings.

When people thought Washington could be a Playoff sleeper it was in large part because of their favorable schedule. If anything the schedule looks even easier than it did last week. Obviously Washington no longer looks even remotely as good but in the same way that they previously could’ve been a top-20 metrics team with a top-5 ranking because of the schedule so too could they be a top-60 metrics team and end up in the upper half of the division because of the schedule.

How many games does UW have to win this season for Lake to keep his job?

Honestly the number is probably something like 3 or 4. If Mike Hopkins didn’t get fired after the past 2 basketball seasons he just had then it’s tough to think Cohen is going to pull the trigger after 17 games without off field issues getting involved basically no matter what.

I don’t think there’s a rubric though that says if Lake wins X games then he will or won’t be fired. The only circumstances under which I can envision a change being made are if this either becomes 2008 (unlikely) or if it is supremely evident that Lake has completely lost the team. That means consistently game after game the players aren’t putting forth any effort. Players giving up on plays prematurely or actively appearing to sabotage the coach (see the clip of UConn’s Randy Edsall this weekend trying to get everyone to put their fist in for a cheer and only like 10% of them reacting at all).

Obviously this was one of if not the worst loss in program history. It also was just one game. Every team has a range of possible outcomes in every game for how well they play. There’s no question that the effort against Montana was far below the floor I (and literally everyone else) thought was possible. It’s almost certainly also the true floor. There are going to be many games Washington plays this season where you shake your head and wonder why UW couldn’t have played like that against Montana. There will probably also be a few games where we say that’s why they lost to Montana.

We live in a hot take reactionary world. Everyone wants everyone to be fired. Sometimes they deserve to be and sometimes they don/t. These things exist on a spectrum. The way I like to think about it in my head is “What is the likelihood that coach X will be able to succeed in the long-term?” That value is constantly in flux until/unless a coach is either fired or he achieves multiple years of sustained excellence.

When Jimmy Lake was hired I probably would’ve put that number around 75%. He was handpicked by Chris Petersen and had shown at a minimum flashes of being an above average coordinator, position coach, and recruiter. At the end of last season that number maybe dipped slightly down to 70% but 2020 was so far removed from normal circumstances for a 1st year head coach that it wasn’t good process to put too much stock in it. After the Coach K departure, wide receiver exodus, and recruiting disappointments it had gotten down to maybe 60% coming into the season. Given the outcome against Montana that number has dipped below the 50% mark for me for the first time and is probably in the 35% range.

It’s more likely than not at this point that Lake will ultimately have to be fired. But I also think it’s way way way too soon to say it’s so overwhelmingly inevitable that not doing it right this second is the unquestionable path forward.

And to bring it all home I think the number when Donovan was hired optimistically could have been set at 50% but realistically was closer to 40% built on the hope he had learned and grown following his Penn State firing. After the Montana game that number is down to 5% for me. Saturday was an echo of the worst tendencies that developed for Donovan at Penn State and the product on the field doesn’t seem to reflect any growth on his part.

As unconscionably bad as Washington’s offensive performance was on Saturday, Lake has to give Donovan the chance to have at least 2 of Bynum, Odunze, and McMillan back before he makes a move. And this isn’t the NFL. You just don’t see mid-season firings happen without off the field considerations. For better or worse the install was Donovan’s system and that’s what is going to be run the rest of the year even if Huff or Adams takes over play calling for the remaining games. If Washington’s offense continues to be a bottom of the barrel outfit with his personnel then I think there will be no choice but to let Donovan go. I’m just not convinced it would happen any sooner than the last snap of the season.

So 3,000+ words later and on that happy note...