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Mailbag: Friday Night Plights Edition

Answering questions on the defense, the botched pitch safety, and the officiating

Washington v UCLA Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The defense looked pretty bad. Do you think our defense is truly that bad or could it be that the plan to contain DTR ended up causing us to play too conservative? Thus eliminating the onslaught we saw against Stanford. -Otis

The defense did indeed look pretty bad. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. It has been a consistent issue against upper level quarterbacks that if the Husky pass rush can’t bring them down within a few seconds then they’re going to be able to find an open receiver somewhere. Tanner McKee and Payton Thorne both had a lot of success when given a clean pocket. The main difference was that Washington’s edge players were able to get to them more often than they did DTR. I think that was less about conservatism then about offensive line play and each quarterback’s innate elusiveness.

Washington played what coming into the season were their 3rd/4th/5th corners on the outside for a total of 44 coverage snaps. The average depth of target working against that trio (Irvin, Banks, and Green) was 11.6 yards. UCLA felt comfortable trying to work on intermediate to deeper routes when facing guys who have limited experience at the outside corner spot. Against everyone else in the secondary the average depth of target was just 4.5.

UCLA only threw a single pass that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. This wasn’t a case of UW consistently getting beat over the top. The majority of the passing attack were relatively short throws that relied on yards after the catch and missed tackles.

The Husky defense certainly obliged them in the missed tackle department with 10 on UCLA’s 24 completions. That 42% missed tackle rate per completion actually isn’t their worst of the season. It was at 64% against Kent State. But it was much higher than against Stanford (12%) or Michigan State (20%). The key for Washington the rest of the year is going to be to get enough pressure on the quarterback to limit chances for big plays and keep the missed tackle rate under 30% on completions. Zach Charbonnet and Jake Bobo forced 8 of those 10 misses. Charbonnet is an all-conference running back and Bobo is above average but shouldn’t have dominated the way he did.

It didn’t matter though whether the Dawgs played man or zone last Friday. Per Bill Connelly, UCLA had a 72.2% success rate and a 22.2% explosive play rate when passing against man defense. Against zone it was 71.4% success rate and 21.4% explosive play rate. That’s an indication of an offense that just kicked UW’s butt. The good news is that only Oregon and maybe Arizona have offenses with anywhere close to the talent of UCLA that is remaining on the schedule. Even if UW continues to struggle against the pass, the points allowed should improve strictly from easier competition.

Any CBs coming in with the 2023 class that could play immediately?- Atomic Dawg

The answer to this is likely TBD because the transfer portal exists. It wouldn’t be a shock at all if Washington ended up adding a lower level veteran starter to come in and compete at one of the corner spots or at safety with Alex Cook graduating.

The Huskies added Jordan Perryman from UC Davis this past offseason who we haven’t gotten the chance to pass judgment on yet due to his injury and returning for a game when the rest of the secondary were the primary culprits. UCLA added a transfer starter from Wyoming (Azizi Hearn) who has graded out per PFF about as well as Perryman so far just in more defensive snaps. If the Huskies end the season as a fringe top-25 team and there is a clear starting spot available for a transfer then it will be a desirable place to be for a mid-major star looking to move up a level.

The highest ranked member of the cornerback class for Washington is currently Curley Reed from Louisiana. Given that UW just about never manages to pull a 4-star recruit out of SEC territory there’s always a question about whether he ends up signing with Washington. He missed his junior season due to a knee injury though and might not be a guy who is ready to play from day one.

The best option for early time might actually be Leroy Bryant who has put up absurd numbers on offense and defense this year and who could very well reach 4-star status by the time the rankings are finalized. There’s also still hope that a good start to the DeBoer era and the potential for early playing time could cause local 4-star corners Caleb Presley (Oregon) or Jasiah Wagoner (Oklahoma) to rethink their decisions but that’s not something you want to count on happening. High 3-star Ethan O’Connor is also an option at a CB spot (although he may want to play receiver in college) and appears to be deciding between UCLA and Washington.

NCAA Football: Washington at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Can you explain the penalties assessed where Stanford got to take the play, take a holding penalty on top of that, and the personal foul penalty on top of that? The total made like a 40 yard play. I understand the personal foul assessment, but I always thought on the holding penalty, the team had a choice, the play or the penalty not the play and the penalty. -THD1

The shortened explanation is: #Pac12Refs.

That was a mistake by the officiating crew. UCLA got 17 yards on the play which means they should’ve declined the penalty and taken a 17-yard gain. There was then a personal foul after the play which does get tacked onto the result of the play. In total it should have been 32 yards. But they also gave them the extra 5 yards from the holding penalty so it took UCLA all the way to the 12-yard line where they scored on the next play.

Would UCLA still have scored from 5 yards further away? Most likely. But it’s understandably frustrating when the refs make a mistake on a very clear cut item that isn’t a judgment call. Dozens of holding penalties get missed every game along the lines. Several get called that seem ticky tack. That’s within the reasonable scope of human error. But forgetting which fouls get added on to the end of the play should be a bare minimum standard. It didn’t remotely cost UW the game but still unfortunate.

It seemed that the Huskies used a lot less motion and formation changes than they did against Stanford. The offense still scored but was the relative “quiet” of pre-snap movement due to the defense of UCLA or a change in offensive schemes? -GU 1966

I haven’t talked to Ryan Grubb about this in our frequent conversations which definitely happen all the time. But my initial guess is that the reduction in the amount of all-out motion is due to the change in environment. It’s a lot easier to shift 5 guys in the formation when you know there’s no crowd noise whatsoever to have to deal with. It could also be that after there have been so many difficulties getting plays off in time that they’ve tried to reduce the major pre-snap shifts until the timing gets better in practice.

While I have not gathered stats to support my hunch, my memory tells me there might be a pattern for the Huskies who, when first appearing in the top 25 rankings, proceed to lose their next game. Perhaps too much time reflecting upon how great they are and less time on the next opponent? Are there any statistics available that would confirm or dispel this?- GaryO

Yes, you did hear that stat going around before the Stanford game. Before this season the last time Washington was ranked in the AP Poll was in the 2021 preseason when they were 20th overall. The Huskies of course lost to Montana in Week 1 last year and never got back into the rankings as they were never above .500 at any point.

During the bizarre 2020 COVID season Washington was 3-0 and entered the rankings at 22nd having played 6 fewer games than Notre Dame which was #2 that week. Then they lost to Stanford in what ended up being the season finale and didn’t make it back at 3-1.

Midway through the 2019 season the Huskies beat Arizona in what at the time was Puka Nacua’s coming out party. That got them back into the rankings at 5-2 just in time to face Oregon and Utah who were both in the top-20. Washington lost both games and fell out of the rankings after their single week.

That means the last time before this year that Washington remained in the AP Poll for multiple weeks was the first 5 weeks of that same 2019 season. UW clung for dear life in the poll after a 1-1 start with the loss in the bizarre lightning game against Cal. Consecutive wins over Hawaii, BYU, and USC kept them going but a loss to Stanford knocked them just out.

Personally I don’t put much stock into the idea that the team consistently lost focus after making it into the AP Poll. In 2019 they had already been ranked for several weeks and won against BYU and USC. That 2020 season there were clear warning signs after a miraculous comeback was needed against Utah that their 3-0 start may have been smoke and mirrors. And in 2021 we saw the combination of a decimated wide receiver corps against Montana plus an inept coaching staff.

Now I’m a numbers guy which means I tend to devalue the squishy stuff like the “cool jackets” concept of Coach Romar days. I think it’s more coincidence than trend that it happened to the Huskies 3 times in a row. Sometimes the schedule is easy for a stretch that gets a mediocre team with an impressive enough record to be ranked and sometimes the preseason poll massively overrates a team. That happens.

As it applies to this year’s team, if there was going to be a massive letdown you would have thought it would come against Stanford. Losing to a 4-0 UCLA team in a primetime game on the road should be viewed as a step up in competition rather than losing focus. And if it was losing focus then that’s on the players because the coaches certainly weren’t telling them that it was going to be easy winning that game.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

During the last 3-4 minutes of the fourth quarter on Friday in the Rose Bowl it appeared that the UCLA player with control of the ball went out of bounds but the game clock kept running? Why was the game clock not stopped?- GaryfromMI

The game clock wasn’t stopped because those are the rules in college. The clock is stopped for a runner going out of bounds only within the last 2 minutes of each half. If a player goes out of bounds outside of the final 2 minutes and happens to pick up a first down while they do so then the normal college first down rules apply. Which means that the clock stops until the ball is able to get spotted by the officials and then begins running again.

For a team in a situation like Washington was where you’re trying to get the ball back in a game with 4-ish minutes left it definitely makes the job more difficult. College football games already suffer from being too long so they’re going to generally err on the side of letting more time run off the clock with their rule changes. Could they instead reduce the amount of time they spend in commercial breaks? Of course not, that would cost the TV companies money. Absurd to even mention.

I didn’t think the pitch play that resulted in a fumble and then a safety was a bad call, but I did wonder why the pitch couldn’t have been a forward pass by design. Do you think the play call was a situational mistake and game changer as was suggested by many contributors to the game thread?- Gou Wei

In his press conference on Monday, Kalen DeBoer said that it never even crossed his mind that the pitch was risky to run near his own goal line. Taulapapa wasn’t standing in the Husky end zone when the ball hit his hands. Even if UCLA’s defense had made an incredible play and brought him down for a loss it still wouldn’t have been a safety.

The only way that play goes wrong is if Taulapapa drops the toss or it’s a completely inaccurate pitch. It was unfortunate for that to happen but was it that much less likely than a screwed up exchange on a more normal handoff? Penix and Taulapapa were standing about 2 feet away from one another. Even 6-year olds don’t mess up an egg toss from that distance.

In order to make it a forward pass you have to have the running back turn his body backwards towards the quarterback which would limit his momentum. You do get the benefit of the play being ruled incomplete if the running back drops it. You also probably lose an average of a yard or so when everything else goes as planned.

If as a coaching staff you can’t trust your running back to catch a one-yard underhand pitch then you probably shouldn’t have that player on the field. I’m not saying that as a “bench Taulapapa” message, just that if someone also consistently messed up that play in practice then you just wouldn’t play them rather than change the play design to take into account the worst case scenario. By all accounts this wasn’t a mistake they’d seen from him in practice and he just let the proximity to the end zone cause him to take his eyes off the ball too soon.

(This isn’t quite the same thing but I found it interesting that NFL twitter also discussed the pitch play over the last week except with regards to short-yardage rather than near their own end zone. In that circumstance it has been a relatively successful play.)