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Mailbag: Refreshingly Competent Offense Edition

The defense, the running game, and everything in between

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Kent State at Washington Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You had questions, I had answers. Let’s get to it.

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I’ve been reading comments that there are some concerns on the defense. I was pretty happy Saturday night with the defense. Is this some rose colored glasses because of the atrocity that was the defense last year?- Dawgmanic

You might be remembering last year’s defense less fondly than it deserved. Washington gave up an average of 22.7 points per game in 2021. They finished 45th in defensive SP+. The atrocity was the offense not the defense even though the defense slipped from the standards that had been set during Coach Petersen’s tenure. I’m fully aware that the pass defense looked as good as it did in part because the run defense deserved the “atrocity” label you gave to the defense overall.

Giving up 20 points to a Kent State offense that should wind up on the upper end of G5 teams isn’t terrible but it isn’t great. It’s fair to add context and note that Kent State scored 10 points on drives that started inside Washington territory because of mistakes on special teams (the long kickoff return and the Giles Jackson fumble). If those drives start at KSU’s own 30 yard line instead they probably end up with no better than a field goal on those possessions and things look a lot better.

If you want to look at things from an advanced stats standpoint it’s even more interesting. Last year’s defense played ultra-conservatively and took away big plays but allowed teams to gash them 5-7 yards at a time on the ground. On Saturday night Kent State had a 12% explosive play rate per gameonpaper.com which was a 99th percentile result. UW gave up a ton of explosive plays. However, Kent State had a 34% overall success rate which put them in the 3rd percentile. Washington got gashed on a few chunk plays but Kent State found themselves repeatedly in 3rd and long because Washington played great on standard downs.

The other promise for this defense was that they would be more aggressive and end up with more turnovers/sacks than last year. The turnover part came to fruition with 3 interceptions but Washington struggled to bring down KSU QB Collin Schlee. UW’s 6% havoc rate ranked in the 2nd percentile but was still ahead of Kent State’s 4% Havoc rate which ranked in the 0th percentile. You could tell that against a slightly less mobile/smaller QB that Trice and ZTF would’ve had multiple sacks however.

Starting CB Jordan Perryman appears to have avoided major injury which makes me feel better about the long-term prospects of the defense. Depth at that position still worries me but I’m looking forward to seeing how the Husky pass rush performs against a more traditional pocket passer incapable of making plays on the run. And the rush defense was very encouraging on Saturday night against an offense that was amazing on the ground last year and returned a lot of the talent in the running back room.

Do you think they will produce this much offense consistently?- will the wise

The short answer is no. Kent State last year had one of the worst defenses in the country. I think under a new defensive coordinator it will end up being better but likely will still be worse than any in the Pac-12. It is highly unlikely that we see anywhere close to the same level of production we did on Saturday (and probably will against Portland State) versus the rest of the schedule. Right this second Kent State is 127th in defensive SP+. Colorado is the next worst among FBS teams on the schedule at 87th.

Still, let’s quantify just how good Washington was on offense against KSU. The Huskies had 0.28 EPA per play which was 99th percentile. They had a 53% success rate which was 100th percentile. They had 6.88 yards per play which was 93rd percentile. As mentioned above they allowed a 4% havoc rate against which was 0th percentile on Kent State’s side. Put it all together and this was almost as dominant an offensive performance as Georgia had against Oregon.

It’s worth remembering that the Huskies played a similar offensive game against Arkansas State last year scoring 52 points with a 98th percentile success rate and yards/play mark in the midst of an abysmal offensive season. If Kent State ends up being one of the worst defense in FBS then we could still see the Huskies struggle to score against the meat of their schedule. But the track record of Penix when healthy and DeBoer at all of his previous stops versus JonDon and Lake makes it seem like this having been a fluke is much less likely than the alternative.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Kent State at Washington

Who is our best RB after game 1 and why? Taulapapa, Nixon, Davis, other?- Belly_Rub

None of them were very impressive although each had flashes. The Huskies finished with 0.06 EPA/Rush which ranks in the 65th percentile for an individual game. Taulapapa had the most yards, carries, and yards per carry thanks to his 27 yard TD to start the scoring. It’s not fair to completely take that out but on the rest of his carries he was 10 for 38 yards. This felt like a game though where the running backs got all the yards the offensive line gave them and not much more. The blocking was perfect on that Taulapapa TD and if I knew enough to pick the hole, I could’ve almost scored on that play. Meanwhile, none of them really made guys miss.

Taulapapa had a 36% success rate which is quite poor on his runs and made a few mistakes in the passing game. Davis had a 33% success rate which obviously is even worse. Nixon had a much higher 56% success rate on his carries but lost a fumble on the 1 yard line which is obviously a no-no (although it would’ve been a turnover on downs regardless).

I still actually thought Davis looked the best overall. He officially had 6 carries for 12 yards but one of those was a 1-yard TD plunge which brings down the yards per carry total. He also had 2 carries of 9+ yards called back for holding which weren’t right at the point of attack. Let’s get somewhat conservative and call them only 6 yard gains and suddenly it’s 7 for 23 on non-goal line attempts which isn’t good but still looks a lot better. He also had 2 catches for 22 yards as a check-down option and I thought seemed quite comfortable in that role.

It appears though that Davis may be in danger to falling back out of the rotation. Based on Coach Grubb’s comments on Monday it sounds like Sam Adams II may have been banged up and if he’s healthy he may slot in ahead of Davis at least for now. Since Adams has never played an offensive snap for UW it’s hard to say where he might fall in the pecking order.

Overall it seems clear though that none of these guys is going to be an all-conference type of performer unless the blocking greatly improves. It was a time honored tradition for several years under Chris Petersen that the running game struggled until about week 3 or 4 but I don’t see a Polk, Sankey, or Gaskin on this roster who can do it themselves.

Have you ever seen the “fake” run out the clock on 4th down then quick sneak by QB before? Reminds me of Marino faking the spike waaay back in the day...- 80s

I can’t point to a specific instance but I have seen that before. I definitely like getting it on film early especially running it so far inside our own territory. From now on it has to be in every team’s mind that we might legitimately run a play any time it’s 4th and short anywhere on the field. The odds of eventually drawing an opponent offsides when we aren’t willing to go for it gets so much higher if they know there’s actually a chance of the QB sneak happening.

You could argue the opposite, that now we won’t be able to catch a team truly off guard by doing that again, but I think it’s still to our benefit to force opponents to think about it.

Which Husky coaches are upstairs during the game?- GaryFromMI

The only one I know for sure is OC/QB Coach Ryan Grubb. There are other support staff up there as well but I think he’s the only coach. Inge and Shepherd I definitely saw on the sideline. That is more typical that the OC is in the booth watching than the DC for whatever reason.

During the open practice it just so happened that Coach Grubb came up almost right next to me during the scrimmage section to simulate being in the booth. It was definitely a cool experience to get to hear all of his calls for about 7-8 minutes and that it’s completely incomprehensible if you don’t know the offense. Except for when he swore loudly when the QB missed that a receiver was streaking deep wide open and checked it down instead.

How did ZTF look and how much did he play? I focused on him for just a play or two but couldn’t see a whole lot.- 1234

Can you explain why ZTF did not start?- TP22

I brought this up in my Three Things We Learned article on Monday. It sounds like the coaching staff feels that Trice and Martin are better all-around defenders while ZTF is the better straight pass rusher. Because of that we may end up seeing more of Trice/Martin on 1st down and ZTF coming in during more obvious pass rush situations. I can’t remember the exact play but I’m also pretty sure at least once I saw ZTF move inside on a 3rd and long to help provide additional pass rush support.

Despite not starting the game we saw almost equal playing time from the top four guys on the depth chart. Trice, Martin, and ZTF all played exactly 35 snaps while Sav’ell Smalls played 33. I’ll be curious to see whether that trend continues against Michigan State or if there starts to be separation between the other 3 and Smalls.

When it comes to actual performance he generally played well although not quite up to his 2020 standard obviously. He missed a pair of tackles for potential sacks but had 3 pressures on 15 pass rush opportunities. That 20% pressure rate is only slightly behind his 21% total back in the 4-game 2020 season. ZTF had a 7% sack rate that season which would’ve been the equivalent to 1.1 sacks against Kent State. So on a per snap basis he wasn’t all that far off his previous pace despite having a goose egg in that regard.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Kent State at Washington

Morris and Huard were listed as either/or on the depth chart. Morris ran the offense for a few drives in the fourth quarter and looked pedestrian. If the dawgs have a similar lead against PSU any chance that Huard will get the mop up duty?- No name

It’s technically possible. Despite what the depth chart listed, Coach Grubb stated pretty unequivocally before the game that Morris would be next in line for snaps if necessary during the game. There’s no indication that the snaps that Morris got in the 4th quarter against Kent State changed that ordering.

Look, I get it. Most Husky fans don’t feel that Dylan Morris has a future in a Washington uniform as the starting quarterback. Given where Huard was viewed coming out of high school it definitely seems like he has the higher upside and so making him the backup could pay off in a major way down the road.

This coaching staff though needs to win this year to be able to try to turn around recruiting immediately. And Michael Penix Jr. has never made it through a season unhealthy. If the coaches think that Morris is better than Huard right this second then they can’t afford to play around with the backup spot. Whoever is the #2 guy needs to be ready to step in and play for an extended period of time at any moment and it looks like they think that guy is Morris. In the portal era you can’t play for next year.

Lots of good stuff on Saturday. Some potential reasons for concern. What potential concerns do you think are real, vs things that are easily fixed?- BHPSEA

To me the biggest areas of concern were in no particular order (for now): kickoff coverage on special teams, ball security, run blocking, and getting home with the pass rush.

I’m least worried about the pass rush. Schlee was not only a mobile 6’3 but made several really tough side arm throws on the run where you just have to tip your hat to him. He’s going to be possibly the most elusive quarterback the Huskies face all year. If you had even put Michael Penix Jr.’s clone in Schlee’s place he would’ve had 3 or 4 extra plays either getting sacked or throwing the ball away rather than completions for first downs.

The kickoff coverage on special teams is something that can get cleaned up but is by no means a guarantee. That wasn’t a matter of Kent State having better athletes. Husky players repeatedly ran themselves out of position and gambled rather than doing the sure thing. It definitely got better in the second half so hopefully this is something already fixed. Although the athleticism of the opposing returns are going to go up after this weekend as well.

The good news is that the ball security issues weren’t with the primary wide receivers or the quarterback who are going to be touching it most of the time in this offense. Giles Jackson’s fumble on special teams was a result of too much dancing around and a stern reminder from the coaching staff can help that. Otherwise, we saw fumbles/drops from guys like Taulapapa, Nixon, Culp. and Westover. If the running backs continue to do it then they just won’t end up playing as much. You’re going to have to live with the occasional drop from Culp or Westover as long as they aren’t fumbles that result in turnovers.

Finally we get to the run blocking which is probably my #1 concern area just given how bad it was last year. Maybe it looks better with a healthy Jaxson Kirkland at left tackle. Maybe Kent State particularly sold out to play the run for some reason. If we aren’t able to push around Portland State though given the talent differential then we’re really going to have to rely on our passing game a lot this year. The good news though? Our passing game looks great. And isn’t that delightful.