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Mailbag: That Just Happened Edition

Answering your questions about the goal line offense, the performance of the secondary, and where expectations should now be set for this team.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Any thoughts on the two failed 1st and goal, 4 down failures? Right or wrong to try on 4th down after 3 straight whiffs? Bad play calls? Poor execution? Does it factor into future decisions, or is that being too reactionary to a small sample size?- Mountain Man

Quite a few things there. It’s tempting to look at the litany of goal line attempts and say that Washington did the same thing over and over. After all they ran the ball all 11 times once they got to at least the 3-yard line and only one of them resulted in a TD. They at least showed some variety in the types of run they used in that situation.

On the first turnover on downs they did run a typical JonDon straight up the middle play out of heavy personnel which didn’t work. After that Washington shifted to the PapaCat and it looked like Wayne had an easy TD but bounced to the wrong hole and also didn’t get his pads low enough allowing the defender to get his shoulder right on the ball and force a fumble. Third down they went back to the inside zone run but this time with Cam Davis and he was hit in the backfield as the interior offensive line gave him no chance. 4th down the initially lined up with a 3 WR set but Michigan State called a timeout and after the break they decided to go with a different formation and went back to the heavy set. The play this time was an option pitch and it looked like Fautanu missed his block right at the point of attack so Penix was corralled instantly and had no chance to pitch the ball like he wanted.

Put it all together and it obviously didn’t work. I still very much support going for it on the first attempt. A failure there still pins MSU back and as we saw they got a safety on the next play. I would’ve preferred Washington run a play action pass with maybe Westover blocking for a half second then leaking out with Penix rolling to his left but I don’t fault the decision to go for it in general.

I had a bigger issue with the final goal line stand. Not attempting a pass despite all of the prior difficulties at that point seemed to meet the standard definition of insanity. Washington has been good at QB sneaks even before Donovan but the interior of the Spartan D-line played phenomenally and we weren’t getting any push. You’ve got to recognize that and change it up. I also wanted to kick it on 4th down by that point since even a FG made it a 4-score game the same as a TD. That seemed insurmountable at the time.

Once again the Huskies didn’t get punished since Thorne instantly threw an interception and Henry kicked the field goal at that point. That’s part of why the math almost always tells you to go for it from there. But the clock/score context plus plenty of evidence from the specific game itself probably showed it was a mistake.

Finally, I don’t think it should influence their future decision making too greatly. If Washington is playing in a game in which they are struggling to get any push up the middle and end up in this situation again I would hope they don’t run it 4 straight times. The sample size being confined to just this game though means I wouldn’t just fail to ever run it in this situation the rest of the year. Hopefully Grubb and DeBoer do learn a lesson though and are willing to eventually mix in either runs from a more spread formation or play action passes in the future. Showing an early tendency is fine as long as you eventually break away from it when you need to in order to exploit the defense in key situations.

What’s going on with Richard Newton? Is he injured? Is he in the doghouse? He has proven quite adept at punching it into the end zone from short yardage, a skill that would have been welcome against Sparty.- Bald Eagle 1313

Per OC Ryan Grubb it sounds like Newton was a little banged up and either was out or just only available in emergency situations on Saturday. He says they expect Newton to be back and getting some reps soon. But Newton took a while to recover from the ACL injury and so got zero practice time this past spring and none through the first few weeks of preseason camp.

Being in the doghouse implies screwing up on a mental/behavioral aspect but Grubb needed Newton healthy and performing in practice before feeling comfortable putting him into a game. His action against Portland State was the first time since the injury and he’s only a few weeks from being cleared for full contact so I’m not surprised they wanted to give him a week of recovery before getting him back in. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see Newton get a carry in that situation this week.

How good is Sparty? Obviously overrated at #11 but do you think MSU will be a top 25 team at the end of the season?- Beezer Twelve Washingbeard

Last week I noted that the consensus across the computer metrics had Michigan State 17th going into the game. That number fell to 23rd after playing against the Huskies. Losing to another team in the 20-25 range on the road isn’t a complete killer in the metrics. Especially since most formulas still have a decent component of their preseason ranking factored into the formula while they wait for a larger sample size.

But if you’re asking instead will Michigan State be in the AP Poll top-25 at the end of the regular season? The answer is probably no. Realistically to have a shot at being ranked before conference championship games happen you have to be at least 9-3 and to feel totally secure you need to be 10-2. The Spartans have the following games left on their schedule with SP+ ranking in parentheses: Minnesota (16), @Maryland (39), Ohio State (3), Wisconsin (15), @Michigan (5), @Illinois (63), Rutgers (74), Indiana (83), @Penn State (9).

Let’s start out by making a major assumption that Michigan State wins every game against teams outside the top 30 and doesn’t trip up against a team they should theoretically be better than. That adds 4 wins to the ledger. Now the Spartans need to go a minimum of 3-2 in games against top-20 opponents. If they can beat Minnesota at home this weekend that looks a lot more plausible. Still they would need to also beat both Wisconsin at home and Penn State on the road to get there unless they spring a colossal upset against Ohio State or Michigan. Even if the Spartans really are the 20th best team in the country they could easily lose a few of those games.

Bottom line is Michigan State very well could be a top-25 team based on actual quality and against the rest of their schedule they’d need some luck to end up ranked at year’s end. (But I’m certainly rooting for their success since it would just make UW look even better.)

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

At 3 - 0, with a convincing win over a top 10ish team, is it fair to recalibrate expectations? The remaining schedule isn’t exactly a murderers’ row. So, is 10+ wins a fair target?- MountainMan

I just quibbled with that “top 10ish” observation in the previous question but it’s still a valid point even if Michigan State isn’t quite at that level. You can question the accuracy of ESPN’s FPI rankings but it is nice that it shows you expected percentages of each game based on its formula and thus allows you to calculate expected wins through the rest of the season.

The Huskies at this point have a projected record of 9.8-2.6. The reason that doesn’t add up to a whole number is that it takes into account simulations where the Huskies make the Pac-12 title game. They also have a column that shows that Washington wins the Pac-12 title 14% of the time so the regular season projected wins is about 9.6.

That seems to check out since if the game was tomorrow I think Washington would be favored by double digits or close to it in the following games; Stanford, @ASU, Arizona, and Colorado. Could UW drop one of those? Of course. It’s more likely they finish 3-1 in those 4 contests than that they sweep. But they’ll be heavy favorites in each of them. FPI has UW as a 75%+ favorite in each. An unblemished mark would put UW at 7 wins right there.

Of the remaining 4 games the only one where Washington will almost certainly be an underdog is at Oregon. Let’s call it a loss even though it’s not a guaranteed one. Now you have 4 more games where Washington is given between a 61-72% chance of winning with @UCLA, @Cal, Oregon State, and @Washington State. If the Huskies win 3 out of those 4 then even with a brain fart in that first grouping of games it means they’ll hit at least 9 wins. Avoid the out of nowhere upset and there’s your 10 wins.

I reserve the right to change my mind but right now here’s what my reaction would be if you came back in a time machine and told me UW’s final record (pre-potential Pac-12 title game).

7 or fewer wins: Clearly Penix got hurt but did Morris and Huard also go down injured? (*knocks on wood*)

8 wins: Not a disaster but definitely disappointed.

9 wins: I know I shouldn’t be underwhelmed but I kind of am.

10 wins: Love that DeBoer didn’t let them slip up against the bottom half of the conference. What a first season.

11 wins: John Donovan and Jimmy Lake are to coaching offense what physicians from the 1200’s who said “you have too much black bile in your body” when a patient felt sad were to the development of medicine.

12 wins: Can we afford to not have to melt down the Don James statue to put up the Kalen DeBoer one?

What’s a more reasonable hope, that the pass coverage improves significantly or that the pass rushing gets consistent enough to cover up deficiencies in pass coverage?- LockerStalker44

Those factors are inextricably linked. Overall, I think the pass coverage is better than the average Husky fan probably thinks it is. The vast majority of the explosive plays in the passing game that Washington has given up were off schedule when the pass rush forced a QB off his spot but couldn’t bring him to the ground. The coverage in the first few seconds after the snap has been generally acceptable in my mind.

The first Michigan State TD happened after Throne was flushed from the pocket and had a man bearing down on him which required a diving, bobbling catch to secure. A long completion on the 2nd to last TD drive also came after about 5 seconds of coverage with Thorne rolled out to the left finding a man on the sideline.

The three big plays that don’t fit that description were the 2nd MSU TD (26-yarder on 4th down), the Berger dump-off catch and run, and the final MSU TD strike to Coleman.

  1. On the 4th down play the receiver was double covered by both Hampton and Fabiculanan. If Hampton knew where the ball was or the throw wasn’t perfectly to the outside then it’s an incompletion if not an interception.
  2. On the quick throw to Berger it looked like Tuputala was still making calls as Michigan State snapped the ball. UW had trouble with MSU’s tempo in the 4th quarter and ESPN did too since the broadcast missed the snap as well. It’s hard to tell exactly who screwed up but I think Tuputala had to be the one responsible. Washington appears to be in a cloud coverage at the first down line trying to keep everything in front of them and Tuputala starts to follow a shallow crossing route despite Hampton and Moll already bracketing that receiver which leaves absolutely no one on the right side of the field. But given that Tuputala was seemingly getting people set then maybe multiple other Huskies screwed up making him look like the guilty one.
  3. On the last MSU touchdown, inside linebacker Cam Bright ended up matched up in man-to-man coverage against Michigan State’s best receiver who is 6’4. And he actually does a good job running with him. Bright is only a step behind and he manages to get his head turned around. If that ball is underthrown at all then he’s able to knock it down. The issue here is the alignment rather than the coverage to give them that matchup. Washington rushed 4 so they had two extra defenders out there but both safeties helped on corner routes which left no one in the middle of the field. That’s on Morrell to make sure that if one of your linebackers is responsible for covering the opponent’s best receiver on a go route then he has to have help over the top. Especially in a near prevent defense situation.

I certainly can’t claim that the Huskies’ pass defense was good in this game. But if Hampton gets turned around in time on the 4th down throw and Throne slightly underthrows the long ball with Bright in coverage then we’d have a very different opinion of how this game went. You can say that every game but props to Michigan State for making great throws/catches on 3 of their 4 touchdowns.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Why did MSU go for two when they were down by 15 barely into the third quarter?- Gou Wei

After Michigan State took the first drive of the 2nd half in for a touchdown they trailed 29-14 pending an extra point or 2-pt conversion try. If they kicked the extra point they would have trailed by 14 and another pair of touchdowns with extra points could’ve tied the game. Had the Spartans kicked the ball no one would’ve questioned it. Even the analytically inclined folks probably say to kick it unless you think you have a distinct schematic advantage in short yardage situations (which given how MSU ran the ball, they shouldn’t have thought).

My best guess as to why they did it is they figured that at some point the Huskies would be able to add on a field goal. The Spartans made it clear that unless it was 4th and 10+ that they would go for it on every other semi-reasonable 4th down. At one point Washington got the ball already in field goal range following a turnover on downs. If you know that to keep pace you’re going to have to play that aggressively then at some point you’ll probably give up a field goal.

Suddenly that 21 point deficit grows to 24 and the only way to keep it a 3-score game is to keep going for and making 2-pt conversions. If that is in fact the case then credit to Tucker for the foresight in his strategy. It’s also possible he just got into a mode thinking “we’re down by so much let’s just take every risk anyways because we’re almost certainly going to lose no matter what”. If that’s the case then less credit to him.

If all the corners are healthy, who are the starters?- TP2020

Well the depth chart that Washington put out shows Powell and Perryman as the starters still. I don’t take that as gospel. But I don’t think it’s a stretch in the slightest to say that Julius Irvin has so far been much more impressive than Mishael Powell. PFF has their coverage situations like this:
Powell- 16 targets, 14 receptions, 152 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, 0 PBU

Irvin- 10 targets, 2 receptions, 22 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 2 PBU

Not exactly much of a competition at that point. I will give Powell credit that he is our highest graded run defender per PFF. That showed up on tape during one drive in particular against Michigan State. He missed a tackle in space on an out route that gave the Spartans a first down. But he also had a stop in the run game and fought through a block on a screen pass that allowed teammates to get there in time to stop the receiver short of the line. It’s not as if Powell has been awful in all phases of the game.

Still, if I were the coaching staff I’d have a hard time keeping Irvin off the field at this point. My guess is that if Perryman is healthy on Saturday that they rotate between Irvin and Powell but if Powell struggles and Irvin continues to shine then Irvin may have seized that spot within a week or two.

On the pass where the defender fell down, did the receiver not run the correct route? Or, as the announcers said, was it a misfire by Penix?- Gou Wei

Neither. The reason the defender fell down is he got his feet tripped up with Odunze. That caused Odunze to lose his momentum and by the time he got it back the ball was several yards too far out in front. You could see it in the stadium but the broadcast didn’t show Odunze at the moment the defender fell, just the aftermath.

You could certainly argue that it should’ve been DPI since the defender contacted the receiver such that he slowed down enough to not catch up to the ball. But it looked like completely incidental feet getting entangled during good coverage and if that call had gone against UW’s defense in a similar situation I wouldn’t have been happy. In the end I think it was a good no call and UW is just unfortunate that Penix threw it before seeing the defender was out of the play and adjusting the ball accordingly. It happens. Glad it happened in a game where UW was up multiple touchdowns.